From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 10.2
As discussed earlier, many philosophers, political observers and community activists believe meaningful participation in the political process (beyond mere voting) is a good in itself. Participants on juries, citizens’ assemblies, participatory budget gatherings, etc. generally develop what de Tocqueville called “civic zeal” for the “welfare of their country,” as well as an enhanced sense of self-worth and community spirit. A “citizen engagement” movement of sorts has developed in many places that seeks to combine deliberation and participation and involve large numbers of citizens. Matt Leighninger, executive director of the Democratic Deliberation Consortium and author of The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance… and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same, is enthusiastic about study circles, neighborhood associations, and other grassroots citizen interaction with government, mainly at the local level. These efforts often involve finding ways for average citizens to advise or influence well-intentioned public officials such as school administrators, planning department staff or elected city councilors. When the interests or policies advocated by such citizen organizing efforts turn out to be in direct opposition to the preferences of such government officials, or their backers, there is a risk (likelihood) that government resources and facilitation for such participation programs will evaporate, or their input simply ignored.
Another major challenge for such efforts is citizen recruitment. Many people view participation as just a nuisance, and have little motivation to get involved, preferring to watch television, hang out with friends, or pursue some hobby. Those who actually do participate in such civic engagement efforts generally report a lot of satisfaction and civic pride, though this may be because of the self-selection bias (people who like participating are more likely to participate). To overcome this self-selection bias, a sortition-based democracy might operate along the lines of the court jury duty model, where participation is semi-mandatory (with excuses) for at least the final decision-making bodies. A vast number of policy juries, each dealing with a particular bill at various levels of government, would also entail having most people serve in some public decision-making capacity at various points in their life. It could be that requiring most people to serve on policy juries at some point would lead to fuller lives for most residents. Of course, if there were not also other, more certain and significant societal benefits, such speculation would certainly not justify a system with widespread participation.
While some citizens certainly have no interest in getting involved, there are many people who desperately want to participate in at least certain public policy decisions — especially those that are close to home, of crucial importance, or would significantly impact their life. Voting in elections provides an extremely minimalist (though still cherished by many) means of “having a say” (even if it can be shown mathematically that such say is effectively irrelevant). Those who really want to participate currently have the option to go further by engaging in election campaign volunteer work, donating to candidates, or attending rallies. While rallies and protests would certainly continue in a democracy governed primarily through sortition, the electoral option would be either diminished or wholly eliminated. It would be essential to provide an alternative means of participation in a sortition democracy so that anyone who wished, even if they were not called onto a jury, could engage in meaningful participation on any issue they wished. This is not only for the psychological benefit of participants, but also to enhance the legitimacy of the system, and potentially (if well designed) to improve the quality of public decisions.
The problem is self-selection. Those who seek to participate will almost inevitably not be representative of the general population, and will tend to harbor narrow self-interested motivations or other biases. Allowing participants to self-select would violate the goal of descriptive, accurate representation. Therefore, such self-selected participation should be focused on providing input (balanced with other input) to more fully representative juries. Most political participation in electoral systems today is limited to campaigning or providing input to elected officials and bureaucrats. While some of this occurs in formal public hearings, most of the really significant input comes in private meetings between lobbyists and elected officials or their staff. Such input is doubly problematic. Firstly, it allows relatively out-of-sight corruption linked to campaign contributions, whether seen through the common lens of “you-scratch-my-back-and-I-scratch-your-back” where wealthy interests buy influence, or the alternative lens of politicians extorting money from wealthy interests with implied threats on legislation of concern. But secondly, information shared in private is not subject to fact-checking by other interests or experts. A good jury-like process would assure that all information, from the general public and lobbyists alike, would be subject to challenge and verification by jurors, their staff, and opposing sides.
In a sortition democracy it would be appropriate, for example, to allow any resident who wished, to join with others to form deliberative Interest Panels that might draft proposed legislation or prepare testimony for juries to consider. As I proposed in previous publications, Interest Panels might be self-organized by like-minded people, or they might have members randomly assigned in order to promote broader diversity of opinion and provide for cross-fertilization of ideas. The notion is that anybody who wished, could participate by generating ideas, arguments and input for the fully representative decision-making bodies. Since these Interest Panels would be providing input to other, more fully representative bodies, they would have a natural incentive to propose policy and arguments that could appeal to such a body, rather than preparing targeted proposals that could only appeal to their self-interest, or a narrow constituency. This can promote seeking win-win options, rather than maximizing the advantage of “winners” at the expense of “losers.”
Many advocates of sortition view it as primarily a participatory reform, because vast numbers of ordinary people are directly connected to the decision-making process. Depending on the scope and specific design of a sortitional democracy, this could even involve virtually every adult. The key factors, however, are that this involvement avoids the harmful effects of self-selection bias, and is embedded in a learning and deliberative framework, rather than the ill-informed referendum model. This makes the participatory democracy through sortition completely unlike all other recent proposals for participatory democracy.