When Citizens Assemble

What happens when Irish citizens get to deliberate on abortion law?

Ireland’s efforts to break a political deadlock over its de facto ban on abortion inspired a bold response – the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly to tackle on the issue.

During five weekends spread over five months, a random selection of Irish people deliberated on the highly divisive and controversial issue. Their conclusion, in April 2017, recommended a radical liberalisation of existing laws, including a change to the Constitution.

Their work helped prompt Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to pledge a national referendum on abortion. In 2018, Irish voters will have a chance to make new laws.

Breakthrough moment

The Assembly represents a breakthrough moment not just for Ireland but also for ways of doing politics in the rest of the world. Ireland used random selection and deliberation on a highly contentious issue, rather than leaving it to elected politicians. The effect is to gift us all a real-life lesson in doing democracy differently.

At a time of deep dysfunction in our electorally driven political models – what issue wouldn’t lend itself to a citizens’ assembly approach?

When Citizens Assemble is the first in a global, nine-film series on the state of democracy and efforts to radically improve the way it works. Please feel free to sign up for project updates, to offer funds for its completion or other support in kind.

 

When Citizens Assemble from Patrick Chalmers on Vimeo.

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Sortition in Switzerland

The Swiss news website 24heures has a story about sortition in Switzerland. (Original in French, my translation, corrections welcome.)

And if parliament members were allotted?

Democracy A seminar examines the use of sortition in Switzerland, which some citizens want to implement.

By Caroline Zuercher, 25.10.2017

Antoine Chollet, research professor at UNIL. Photo: Marius Affolter

Allotment is useful not only for selecting the winners in lotteries. A group of citizens, Generation Nomination, wants to use it for selecting our people’s representatives in Berne. In time, they place to launch a initiative to this effect. The mechanism is far from being new having already been used in ancient Greece. An international seminar, on Friday and Saturday at the university of Lausanne is examining exactly these experiences in Switzerland and in Europe.

Sortition has been used in various contexts. And it has not always been synonymous with democracy. Antoine Chollet, teaching assistant in the University of Lausanne, gives and example. In the 18th century Berne used it to name bailiffs and other magistrates, but only the members of noble families participated in the allotment. The goal was therefore about all to share power among the powerful.

Switzerland had more democratic experiences as well. Studies supported by the National Swiss fund for scientific research examined cases in Schwytz and in Glaris. “There, the people demanded allotment in order to reduce the corruption of the elites and to enhance the circle of powerful families”, explains the researcher. In Glaris at the end of the 18 century, for example, the deputies were for allotted among the entire body of citizens. With limited success: “Our research shows that it was transformed into a form of lottery. Those who were selected could resell their post: that was the great prize!”
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Sortition-related proposals in Belgium and Switzerland

In Belgium, Christie Morreale, a senator, proposes a Peonidisesque scheme where blank votes would be translated into allotted MPs.

In Switzerland “Génération nomination” is starting to collect signatures for putting its sortition-related proposal on the ballot. According to the proposal, 50 out of the 200 members of the Swiss national council would be selected by lot.

The Paradox of Democratic Selection: Is Sortition Better than Voting?

Book chapter just uploaded to academia.edu by Anthoula Malkopoulou

Sortition, or the selection of political officers by lot, has its antecedent in the direct democratic tradition of ancient Athens. Its transfer into a modern context of representative democracy poses rightful scepticism not only about the practical difficulties, but more so about the theoretical inconsistencies that arise. Modern systems of political representation are based on the aristocratic idea of ‘government by the best’, who are to be selected through a competitive call for candidates (Manin 1997). Sortition, on the other hand, replaces this aristocratic criterion of competition and evaluative election with the democratic mechanics of direct and equal distribution of political office by chance. Hence, the very expression ‘democratic (s)election’ includes a paradoxical contradiction in terms, between the democratic concept of equal access to public office and the aristocratic idea of government by the (s)elected best. My aim in this chapter is to shed some light on this contradiction by critically discussing the benefits and pitfalls of using sortition today, comparing it throughout the chapter with voting and the general effects of electoral representation.

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The allotted Irish Citizens’ Assembly sends its recommendations to the Oireachtas

Wikipedia:

The Citizens’ Assembly (Irish: An Tionól Saoránach) is a citizens’ assembly established in Ireland in 2016 to consider several political questions: abortion, fixed term parliaments, referendums, population ageing, and climate change. It will produce reports to be considered by the Oireachtas (parliament).

[…]

On 26 July 2016, Mary Laffoy, a judge of the Supreme Court of Ireland, was chosen by the government as chairperson of the assembly.

The 99 other members are “citizens entitled to vote at a referendum, randomly selected so as to be broadly representative of Irish society”. As with the 66 citizen members of the Constitutional Convention, these 99 plus 99 substitutes were selected by an opinion polling company; Red C won the tender and began selection at the start of September. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2016 was passed to enable the electoral register to be used in this process. Media were asked not to photograph the citizen members before the inaugural Assembly meeting. By the 27 November 2016 meeting, 11 of the 99 had been replaced by substitutes.

The Irish Post:

THE Irish Citizen’s Assembly has voted overwhelmingly in favour of abortion in a landslide vote.

[…]

The citizens involved in the vote had attended five two-day meetings since November 2016 and had heard from a series of legal and medical professionals.
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Representative Isegoria

In my sortition thesis I argue that both elements of Athenian democracy — isonomia and isegoria — need to be representative when applied to large modern states. Representative isonomia is achieved via large randomly-selected juries, but isegoria requires different mechanisms — including competitive commercial media — to ensure the accurate representation of public opinion. This presupposes a bottom-up model in which commercial newspapers “refine and enlarge” the opinion of their readers (in order to increase subscription revenue). This has been much criticised by advocates of the Lasswell propaganda thesis — the critique specifically aimed at the concentrated ownership of the MSM — arguing that “the freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”.

The top-down Lasswell thesis has been thrown into doubt by the Brexit referendum — the Daily Mail supported Brexit and the Mail On Sunday supported Remain. Both newspapers are owned by the strongly Remain supporting Lord Rothermere, whereas the position of the broadsheets owned by Brexit-supporting Rupert Murdoch was the other way round (Sunday Times for Brexit, The Times for Remain).
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Antoine Bevort: Chouard and democracy: an intellectual and political fraud

The following is my translation of a recent article Antoine Bevort in the online French publication Mediapart. Like Tommy Lasserre’s Sortition in politics – the false good idea, which appeared in Mediapart two years ago, the article is a critique of Chouard and his proposals. Bevort makes some similar points, but, unlike Lasserre, doesn’t focus solely on sortition, and when he does discuss sortition he often deals with implementation details rather than with the principle itself to which he is not wholly hostile. Bevort also relies much less than Lasserre on canned Leftist rhetoric. As a result of those differences more of his punches land on target.

Chouard and democracy: an intellectual and political fraud
29 June 2016 Antoine Bevort

Étienne Chouard presents himself as the scholar of “real” democracy. His proposal of allotting of a constitutional assembly is however a fraud. It incorporates general principles which can be embraced, at least in part, but rests on largely specious argumentation, eventually leading to a strange and dogmatic conception of democracy.

Chouard considers himself the guru of “real” democracy. He feels he has found the “cause of causes” of the political crisis (“the political disempowerment of the citizens”) and proposes as a solution the allotment of a constitutional assembly. In his analyses, Chouard invokes general principles which can be embraced at least in part, but advances mainly through theoretical and historical shortcuts, simplifications or even misinterpretations, and through blunt claims and assertions. His dogmatic propositions are based on largely specious argumentation and lead eventually to a strange philosophy of democracy.

In order to deconstruct this rhetoric of mystification, we use a conference video available online[i], a text on the Gentils Virus website whose contents are very similar to those of the conference, as well as on the wiki of this organization, and particularly on the constitution drafted by Chouard. We first discuss his analysis of the existing political system, his claims that “we are not living in a democracy yet” and that “an electoral system is not a democracy”. Then we examine his conception of the “true democracy”, and his proposal of drawing by lot a constitutional assembly. We conclude with the mode of action which Chouard, the Gentils Virus (GV) and Les Citoyens Constituants (LCC), two organizations which promote his ideas, are pursuing.
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