Disadvantages of Citizens’ Assembly

This is an extract from Tony Czarnecki’s book: ‘Democracy for a Human Federation’

Disadvantages of Citizens’ Assembly system

  1. Pure sortition does not discriminate for competence. The most common argument against pure sortition (that is, with no prior selection of an eligible group) is that it does not discriminate among those selected and takes no account of particular skills or experience that might be needed to effectively discharge the particular offices to be filled. By contrast, systems of election or appointment ideally limit this problem by encouraging the matching of skilled individuals to jobs to which they are suited [56].
  2. Chance misrepresentation. If selection or decision is made based on randomness, there is always a statistical possibility that sortition may put into power an individual or a group that do not represent the views of the population, from which they were drawn. This argument may apply to juries. However, the modern process of jury selection and the rights to exclude particular jurors by both the plaintiff and defence, lessen the possibilities of a jury not being representative of the community or being prejudicial towards one side or the other. Today, therefore, even juries in most jurisdictions are not ultimately chosen through pure sortition. Regarding larger groups, the probability of selecting of a very one-sided view sortition is statistically insignificant [50].
  3. Lack of commitment by sortition members. In an elected system, the representatives are to a degree self-selecting for their enthusiasm for the job. Under a system of pure, universal sortition the individuals are not chosen for their enthusiasm for their role and therefore may not make good advocates for a constituency.
  4. Lack of feedback or accountability. Unlike elections, where members of the elected body may stand for re-election, sortition does not offer a mechanism by which the population expresses satisfaction or dissatisfaction with individual members of the Citizens’ Assembly. Thus, there is no formal feedback, or accountability mechanism for the performance of officials, other than the law [50].
  5. Legislation agenda and scope. As David Owen and Graham Smith indicate in their paper ‘The circumstances of sortition’ [54] “A Citizens’ Assembly embedded within a bicameral system, will also be subject to pressures from the elected chamber, especially when there is disagreement between them… The small number of members, length of term, and specialization of roles also invites more insidious forms of influence – namely, corruption and bribery”. They propose, as do other researchers in this area, that for a Citizens’ Assembly to overcome this deficiency, it should be given an agenda and scope and not develop it.
  6. Public influence and ‘control’ over representatives. Sortition gives the public a kind of control but only over the selection process. Once they have been selected, voters have no influence on them at all. The only way this can be rectified is to have a process of recalling such members and substituting them with others from the waiting pool of the Citizens’ Assembly members. On the other hand, elected representatives by the very nature of elections are totally under the control of the voters but only during the elections. During the election term, the only influence the voters have is a threat that next time they may not be voted in, if they do not keep their promises, or stick to their party manifesto. This deficiency could, however, be fairly easily rectified if there had been a fast process of recalling representatives should their voting pattern and/or behaviour been unacceptable to his constituents. There is such a process in several countries already, but it is used very seldom, or the threshold needed to recall a representative is too high.
  7. Citizens’ Assembly members’ competency. Incompetence of sortition members is one of the most common arguments against using it as an additional tool to improve democracy. How could randomly selected members of the public be capable of understanding and making sound decisions on complex policy problems? It would be just a sheer luck. However, similar arguments were once put forward against allowing peasants, workers or women to vote. Then, the opponents also claimed it would mark the end of democracy. A body of elected representatives undoubtedly has more technical competencies than a body chosen by a lot. But the elected do not know everything either. They need staff and researchers to fill the gaps in their expertise. In much the same way, a representative body chosen by lot would not stand alone. It could invite experts, rely on professionals to moderate debates and put questions to citizens.” [42].