One of the issues dividing commentators on this blog is whether participation in sortition-based assemblies should be mandatory or voluntary — see, for example. Those of us advocating legislative juries based on Athenian nomothetic panels advocate quasi-mandatory participation in order to ensure accurate descriptive representativity. Those, however, who argue for full in-depth participatory deliberation claim that mandatory participation would be ‘disastrous’, as it is hard to see how a a ‘full-charge’ legislature — essentially like existing elected legislatures but with members selected by lot — could function with (in effect) conscripted members.
A paper by Vincent Jacquet in the European Journal of Political Research, examines why it is that the overwhelming majority of randomly-selected persons refuse the invitation to participate in deliberative minipublics. Given that the descriptive representativity of the minipublic (vis-a-vis the target population) is one of the principal rationales for sortition, acceptance rates are extremely poor, ranging from 1% (America Speaks) through 3% (Belgium), 5.7% (Ontario), 6.2% (Netherlands), 7.4% (British Columbia) to 20% in Deliberative Polls. As a result there is a danger that voluntary participation risks the ‘over-representation of better educated and politically active individuals’ as ‘the [overwhelming] majority of the recruited population refuse to participate (pp.2-3).
Stratified sampling can enable some correction but this is generally on the basis of crude population metrics and ‘[voluntary] participation follows the social unequal distribution pattern of political engagement . . . participants are better educated, mostly men and older than the average population . . . participants are more politically interested and have a higher sense of efficacy’ (p.3). Such ‘statistical biases’ might suggest that deliberative minipublics privilege the usual suspects, the added disadvantage being that nobody has chosen ‘descriptive’ representatives and there is no way to kick the rascals out. There is a danger that
Using mini-publics to shape public policies may create new deliberative elites — randomly selected but distinct from the wider population precisely because they have taken the time to deliberate. (p.14)
Jacquet’s paper is the first attempt to ask a sample of refuseniks why they declined the invitation to participate. On the basis of in-depth interviews with thirty-four invitees to three Belgian minipublics convened between 2011 and 2014 (G1000, G100 and CCP) with a raw positive response rate of only 3%, Jacquet developed six explanatory logics for non-participation:
- Concentration on the private sphere
- Self-disqualification because of lack of competence/expertise
- Dislike of group situations, reluctance to speak up
- Conflict of schedule
- Political alienation
- Minipublic’s lack of impact
1, 4 and 6 were the most frequently offered reasons. The first is particularly problematic as it was frequently given by younger people with family commitments and busy self-employed people — groups that tends to be underrepresented in conventional politics. The second reason reflects modern perspectives on the division of labour outlined in Constant’s famous essay and tends to militate against less educated and working-class people, one construction worker explaining that he lacks the skills to deal with the (constitutional) topics discussed in the G1000 (p. 10). University graduates would be less likely to view themselves as incompetent to participate in political deliberation. The same sociodemographic factors might well contribute to explanatory logic 3 (reluctance to speak out). Although many refuseniks ticked the ‘conflict of schedule’ option, Jacquet speculates that this might sometimes be ‘an easy excuse to decline the invitation’ (p.11).
Although scepticism regarding the minipublic’s lack of impact (6) would be a rational reason not to participate, Jacquet was surprised that there was no difference between the private (G1000 and G100) and government (CCP) initiatives. Those of us arguing for legislative minipublics with a binding mandate might well argue that this would overcome the objection. Jacquet notes that none of the participants in the Belgian projects were paid and that DPs secure a higher level of participation due to the honorariums on offer. However it’s not entirely clear from a civic perspective what the difference is between mandatory participation and generous rewards. If persons unsuited (for whatever reason) to deliberate were motivated to attend by generous rewards or legal sanctions the effect would be the same. Participation in trial juries is mandatory and participants are also remunerated, so this might well be the appropriate model in order to ensure that deliberative minipublics accurately ‘describe’ their target population.