Politics First vs Policy First: The Sortition Solution [Part 2/2]

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 2

Review of Part 1 – The Relative Merits of Politics First vs Policy First

In the previous article, I wrote about the problem of demagoguery, and how this exposes the conflict between politics first or policy first approach in governance. The article noted that in democracies, where all votes are counted equal, low-information voters, acting as cognitive misers, can yield broad and harmful choices. This is a problem that is common to all democracies, especially in countries where civic mindedness is deficient.

We must keep and strengthen our faith in Democracy. Work must be done.

On 11 November 1947, Winston S Churchill famously stated: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

I believe in the importance of Democracy. It allows a non-violent avenue for voters to ensure that governmental elites act for the people’s welfare, or at the very least, not turn rouge against the people’s interests. The degree to which this tool can be wielded effectively by citizens depends on their willingness to participate in politics, think critically and equip themselves with knowledge on current affairs.

When politics revolves around a politically active population subgroup, such as political parties and special interest groups, the common citizen feels alienated.

Alienation occurs when persons feels being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong or in which one should be involved, or in this case, the lopsided power relationships in favour of political elites.

This undermines citizens’ faith in democracy and its government. Without faith, there is no perceived legitimacy in the role of government as a guarantor of security, provider of welfare and symbol of national unity. The result is a nation-state where social groups and individuals takes matters into their own hands, greater exploitation by the economically powerful, and national disunity.

I will therefore double emphasize on the importance of faith in any governmental system and the following suggestion proposed serves not only to resolve the cognitive-miser problem in democracy, but also instil faith by institutionalizing greater involvement of the common citizen in the political process.

Introducing Sortition.

In governance, sortition refers to the random selection of representatives from the pool of eligible citizens. In many common-law jurisdictions, sortition is currently used to select jurors to hear court cases, and in some cases, to form political advisory units such as the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in Canada.

In addition to elected career politicians representing the conscious choices of the people, Sortition yields representation through scientific sampling of “jurors” from the electorate. An citizens’ assembly of jurors selected by sortition will yield a more accurate representation of the electorate and their life circumstances, knowledges and values held. Suppose you have a tub of mixed fruit juice, and you scoop a spoonful of it, the taste of the mixed fruit juice in the spoon would taste the same as the juice in the tub. Sortition assures descriptive representation, where the body of representatives possesses the same descriptive characteristics of the population.

These jurors, who would advocate for themselves, and consequently advocate for persons of similar circumstances to their own, will participate directly in the political decision making process.

A Demarchy-Representative Democracy Hybrid – The Sortition Solution and harnessing the Science of Sampling

Singapore’s electorate population, as of the most recent general election in 2015, is 2,462,926. Suppose we are willing to accept a 5% margin of error and 95% confidence level of representativeness, we would need to allot 385 “legislative jurors” to the citizens’ assembly.

Stratified sampling can be performed to improve precision of representation, and to reduce nonresponse biases, or in this case, the different levels of willingness among different homogenous population subgroups to serve on the citizens’ assembly. The population can be divided into categories that represents different life circumstances such as age, income and wealth levels, gender and sex, race and religion, and place of residence.

The use of scientific sampling to select legislative jurors assures political inclusiveness, as it eliminates the role of educational and socio-economic privileges, political connections, and other political hurdles for citizens of all levels of society to participate directly in governance.

With descriptive representativeness assured, the next step is for the state to invest quality resources to ensure that all legislative jurors are equipped with relevant knowledge for the day and critical thinking skills.

To ensure that legislative jurors learn the relevant knowledge and critical thinking skills for the discharge of their duties, I suggest that they be selected in advance and be trained in the 1 year before taking office. To establish continuity of the citizens’ assembly, legislative jurors will serve for 5 year terms and be selected annually in equally sized batches. This allows newer legislative jurors to learn from the more experienced ones.

Roles of Legislative Jurors

I propose 3 main roles for Legislative Jurors.

Firstly, on issues not well-managed by self-interested politicians. Legislative jurors can decide on issues that involves conflict of interest among elected politicians. These issues include electoral law, redistricting, campaign finance law, the regulation of political speech, anti-corruption, ministerial pay, and organic law. One reason dominant political parties’ foothold in politics seems unshakeable is due to their power to decide on the terms and conduct of the elections. In the US, electoral boundaries in states are often decided by the elected legislature. While gerrymandering along racial lines has been rules unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, partisan gerrymandering is still permissible. First Past the Post system, coupled with politically motivated gerrymandering, has entrenched Republicans and Democrats powers across federal, state and city level of government. In Singapore, the GRC system has also benefited the People’s Action Party at the expense of smaller opposition parties. These controversies cannot be well-managed by self-interested politicians, and since Legislative Jurors are mostly laypersons who does not enjoy opportunities for re-election, such issues can be decided in an impartial manner.

Secondly, on oversight roles. Where the citizens’ assembly finds that national issues are not well-resolved by the elected politicians, legislative jurors may act to participate in the decision-making process for that issue to forge a more acceptable consensus, otherwise, the citizens’ assembly may veto the relevant bills from the elected house of parliament.

Third, advisory roles. During non-election periods, legislative jurors may hold a political advisory role, combining their knowledge of circumstances faced by individuals within their own social strata, and knowledge gained from the discharge of their political duties, to advise elected politicians on the best course of action, based on the collective personal conscience of the legislative jurors. In addition, during the election season, the citizens’ assembly, and individual legislative jurors, representing the diversity of values, social groups, and life circumstances in the nation, could advise the electorate on the best candidates or political parties to vote in an election.

Limits of Sortition and the need to retain Elected Representatives

With the inherent advantages of sortition, coupled with its potential to strengthen faith in democracy, one would ask: should we replace elections entirely with sortition? Nope. I believe that this would be unwise. There are several reasons.

First, the nature of sortition is such that as batches of legislative jurors are randomly selected at every term, it is difficult for the citizens’ assembly as a body to exercise strong expertise in governance, and to translate public values into sound policies.

Second, legislative jurors lack of enthusiasm present in career politicians means that long hours of policy deliberations can lead to burn out, and lacklustre policies.

It is thus evident that elected politicians still play an important role in governance. Sortition should thus serve as a complement, rather than replacement of electoral democracy.

Beyond institutional reforms. Change begins within you.

            While sortition can translate public values into sound policies with greater precision and thus strengthen faith in democracies, it does not on its own solve the problem of cognitive misers in democracies. Institutional reforms may help to mobilize the potential within the society, but change begins from the individual. A country of citizens who continue to cling on to dogmas and reject facts can never stomach sound policies in the face of emotionally appealing but unsound policies. Furthermore, it will be an uphill effort for the sortition proposal to be adopted, given its political implications to political elites.

As we adopt a culture of critical thinking, with respect to facts, with compassion and kindness, and without undue influence by hatred and ego, we can look forward to a more equitable, just and utilitarian society.

See also: Politics First vs Policy First: The Relative Merits [Part 1/2]