Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sortition, Stealth Democracy and Particapatory Democracy

Dr. Hibbing and E. Theiss-Morse wrote a book about American's views of the mechanism of Democracy. Do we accept Republicanism and representative democracy as a feasible substitute for an ideal of truly democratic and participatory democracy(1)? They show a figure showing that Americans prefer a system midway between pure representative democracy (which is what we have on a federal level) and the fully democratic system that I advocate. The bell curve of beliefs is pretty similar to that of the bell curve between right-wing and left-wing beliefs. The majority of Americans are in the middle on the left-right scale and most Americans are not extreme in ideological spectrum.

Would Americans prefer that government be run by impartial empathetic experts and not have to be bothered by participating in democracy? These authors would say yes. Unfortunately, artificial intelligence has not advanced to that level yet, one might argue that this is the wrong question. Thus, the question might better phrased, if we could reform campaign contributinos and the like, and given the innate limitations of all humans, would you prefer a participatory democracy or a republican democracy?

Drs. Saebo and Nilsen in Norway had discussion boards on democracy models and compared four main themes:

  1. Passivity
  2. A combination of representative and technocrats running things--which is what Americans and the rest of the " first world" have
  3. Expanding citizen involvement using cybermedia which he terms "neo-republicanism." With some of the web ideas such as of the Obama administration, Electronic town halls seems to be what is what American democracy is moving towards.
  4. And lastly, Cyber-democracy.
Drs. Saebo and Nilsen report the discussion group did not support that, but they expressed cautious optimism that support might increase when citizens are given the opportunity to try cyberdemocracy. (Which is what I aim to do in my new research project.)

Muhlenberger did a study of on-line deliberation and found that after participating, Americans were more likely to suport cyber-optimistic ideas.

Sortition refers to the random selection of individuals to make decisions in government. Currently, in the united States, only juries and grand juries exemplifies this. Brian Martin is one person who advocates replacing representative democracies by series of juries that would deal with various issues which he terms demarchy. He points out the problems with referendums, the voters can simply give a yes or no.

Brian Martin points out in a community that there would be sortition juries chosen to handle art, transportation, etc. Athenians used this for many purpose, but not exclusvively. Later when I talk about parametric constitutions, we can discuss John Zube's Panarchy where several systems can be used. And he has several links to attempts to try this out. Paul Woodruff talks about democracy in ancient democracy, the importance of randomly selected legislatures to avoid the power of wealth in elections, and things that we take for granted in democracy but Dr Woodruff refers to as "doubles" for democracy.

Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips advocate the House of Representatives being chosen by lot. But one could have a parametric method. For example, there could be three houses, one chosen by sortition, one chosen as represenatives by district as we do now, and the Senate chosen by election from the states. In addition to voting for the second two houses, we could vote for the percentage of each house that is needed to pass legislation. Thus, at a particular time, 40% of the Senante, 60% of the Sortition House, and 37% of our House of Representatives. (There has to be a hysteresis, so that voting on this is not used to influence specific legislation. Thus, the vote might not take effect for fifteen years. Or there could be a rule that the percentages do not change more than five percent year regardless of the votes.) Obviously, the Senate and House are designed to reflect the paradigm between a strict system proportional to the number of voters and giving power on a state-by-state basis. One could average the votes for the percentages when accumulated on a per-state basis and on a vote. (I also will talk later about the min-max principle in voting to deal with this kind of divide.)

Wally Smith talks about Direct Democracies, and argues for having proxies. Everyone gets to either participate or nominate someone who they consider better qualified themselves, allowing the chain to go up by four levels. He also observes a back-of-the-envelope system that all the legislation which is less than one hundred thousand pages, could be voted on in ten page chunks with ten thousand people voting on each chunk. I proposed some mechanisms and (students here at Western Illinois are starting to implement in computer code for the Web )on how to combine decisions better than this.

But such a discussion would not be complete without mentioning Deliberative Polling and the work of Peter Fishkin. In deliberative democracy, individuals are chosen randomly. They are given "briefing material" which is "balanced" and an opportunity to question experts.

Here he implemented several nationally televised polls in Australia, Britain and the United States. And people's opinions did change. Most of the results he cited are on the order of fifteen percent, but there were dramatic changes in some cases, particularly a deliberative polling exercise done on sources of energy for several Texas utility companies where there were thirty percent changes. These changes are comparable to the changes in people's opinion after a debate on whether "Global warming is a crisis" that I heard on National Public Radio. They are also comparable to logical discrepancies in polling results. Wally Smith has several examples of these. 61% of Americans say that abortion should not be permitted after fetal brainwaves are detected. 58% say that abortion should not be permitted after fetal heartbeat detected. These occur at the sixth week of pregnancy and 18 to 21 days. On the other hand, 64% of Americans are in favor of letting Roe vs. Wade stand which permits abortion after three months, which was stated the indirect. And similarly sixty percent say abortion should be "left up to the women and her doctor." These results differ by twenty percent, about the same rate of change we saw in many of the deliberative polling exercises.

Opinion Leader Research and the Institute for Public Policy Reserch and others in Britain have tried out citizen juries to get input on a wide of usually specialized topics such as handling the rehabilitation of a specific site, or the types of medical care that should be provided for back pain. They were surprised on the level of suport for osteopaths and chiropractic. And this is a good source of links and definititons for what are termed citizen deliberative councils.


  1. J. R. Hibbing and E. Theiss-Morse, Stealth Democracy: American's Beliefs About How Government Should Work Cambridge University Press, Cambridge U. K. New York, 2002.
  2. Woodruff, Paul, First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea, Oxford University Press, 2005.
  3. Oystein Saebo and Hallgeir Nilsen, "The Support for Different Democracy Models by the Use of a Web-Based Discussion Board" Electronic Governemnt, Third International Conference, EGOV 2004, Zaragoza Spain, August 30 - September 2004, Springer Verlag, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Volume 3183.

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