This series, by BANR founder Ted Wachtel, applies the concept of citizens’ assemblies to an urgent need that the U.S. Congress avoids — gun violence and how to prevent it. Wachtel identifies the reasons legislators can’t do it and why a diverse group of citizens can. No longer theoretical, in the last few years, citizens’ assemblies have been used around the world to make thoughtful decisions about challenging and often controversial problems.
2. Citizens’ assemblies, chosen like juries by random lottery, are more truly representative than elected legislatures.
Convening Citizens’ Assemblies
In contrast to elected professional politicians, citizens’ assembly participants are selected at random from voter registration lists, a process called “sortition.” This allows them to make decisions without fear of losing the next election.
For them, there is no next election.
Sortition guarantees that a truly representative sample of citizens will be making the assembly’s decisions—just as it does in jury selection. And, unlike politicians who are always running for office, jurors are not distracted by the pursuit of power. Instead, they focus on the pursuit of truth.
Some may ask, “But can we trust their judgement?
If we doubt the collective judgement of ordinary people, why do we trust jurors—selected at random from the population—to make our society’s most momentous decisions; whether to take away freedom, or possibly life itself, from our fellow human beings?
It’s Already Working
Citizens’ assemblies are now being held around the world, to deal with a wide variety of public issues:
- a Climate Assembly will take place in the U.K. in January 2020
- the French National Climate Assembly began meeting in late 2019
- several local citizens’ assemblies in the U.K. and one in Budapest, Hungary are being convened to deliberate about solutions to traffic congestion.
James Fishkin of the Stanford University Center for Deliberative Democracy, has conducted 109 citizens’ assemblies in 28 countries, using a process that he calls a Deliberative Poll.®
The issues addressed have ranged from closing segregated Roma schools in Bulgaria to health care in Italy to renewable energy policy in Texas.
While most citizens’ assemblies can only make recommendations, some have authority.
Citizen Assemblies with Legal Authority
Since 2016, Gdansk, Poland, has delegated municipal authority to a series of 60-person assemblies, which meet for several days to hear testimony from experts, ask questions and deliberate in small groups, then render a binding policy decision.
Belgium’s German-speaking province has supplemented its single-chamber elected legislature with the equivalent of a second chamber, comprised of citizens—selected by sortition—who review and challenge new laws.
Citizens’ assemblies represent a revolution by conversation, reducing the influence of partisan politics and increasing the opportunity for the citizenry to deal with society’s challenges.