The virtues of voting often

Filip Palda
The Next City
June 21, 1998

Taking the law into our own hands will give us the governments we deserve

THE TIME IS MARCH 1997, AND THE CITIZENS OF TORONTO’S SIX MUNICIPALITIES are out of luck. In one month, the province will make an amalgam of them and call the product “megacity.” In a last-minute burst of desperation, the municipalities organize plebiscites asking citizens whether they agree with the province’s plan to merge. Of the 28 per cent who turn out, more than 70 per cent shout, “No!” They should have saved their energy as did the more savvy 72 per cent who saw the plebiscite as just an opinion poll, with no ability to tie politicians. But citizens would have foiled the amalgamators had Toronto been in Switzerland, where a political device known as the rejective initiative can force a popular vote that either approves or rejects government law. Since 1874, the Swiss have held 122 rejective initiatives. Half of these forced government to withdraw its law.

Fast-forward now to August 1997. Ontario Hydro, North America’s largest energy utility, declares that it needs to zap ratepayers for at least $7 billion to make its nuclear operations safe. Outside experts estimate the true cost of setting things right at two or three times that amount. Had Ontario been Washington state, Ontario Hydro would have avoided this sorry pass. In 1981, Washington citizens passed Initiative 394, to require voter approval before public agencies can issue bonds to build major power plants. The initiative also subjects new nuclear plants to studies to determine their economic merits. Wall Street investment firms, labor unions, and the nuclear power industry tried to defeat the initiative by spending $1.25 million on advertising. The grassroots movement pushing the initiative spent only $204,000 but won. In so doing, it may have saved Washington taxpayers billions of dollars in stranded nuclear plant costs. Ontario has no such luck. Without popular initiatives, Ontarians passively accept whatever the Ontario Hydro monopoly hands out, including a debt that exceeds $3,000 for each of the province’s 10 million inhabitants. Their elected leaders are no help. Instead of representing the people, they bow before Ontario Hydro’s special interest pleadings.

SINCE CONFEDERATION, POLITICIANS HAVE DONE LITTLE to help citizens participate in political life. A Canadian Rip van Winkle who had fallen into a coma in the early part of the century would be bowled over by today’s social and technological advances. But at election time, he would have nothing to learn. Today, as then, he would mark the ballot with a pencil, then forget about influencing government for the next four years. One election every four years might have been fine early this century, when governments in industrialized nations spent only one dollar in eight of their countries’ GNPs. Today, that average approaches one dollar in two, and governments at all levels now regulate commerce and social life in ways that despots of old could only have dreamed about.

Politicians, meanwhile, are unchanging in their desire to evade public control. In a 1991 British Columbia plebiscite, a resounding 83 per cent of citizens demanded the power to propose laws and to recall elected officials. To thwart the public will, a legislative committee toured the country for the next two years to find out what citizens “really” wanted. As in a scene from Kafka, it then denied citizens the rights they had won in the plebiscite through signature requirements so high as to guarantee these rights would never be used. Likewise, at about the same time, Ottawa’s $20-million Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing recommended that government muzzle free speech by forbidding private citizens and groups from spending more than $1,000 to advertise their opinions at election time and by forbidding the media from publishing opinion poll results 72 hours before balloting.

Twenty years ago, technologies emerged to permit citizens to vote from home. Today, the

U. S. group Government by the People, the department of political science at Auburn University, and the Electronic Congress in Pennsylvania have made these technologies — everything from smart cards to Internet voting — safe, confidential, and cheap. Even the kitchen telephone has the power to spoil the best-laid plans of a government that would rather not listen to its people. In 1994, North Vancouver Reform MP Ted White sponsored what he called Referendum ’94, a referendum on the Young Offenders Act. White mailed each registered voter in his riding a confidential Personal Identification Number. By dialing a 1-900 number and paying $2, citizens could key in their PINs and then their yes or no answer to each question. Only 6.8 per cent of registered voters cast their ballots in White’s experiment in teledemocracy. It was, after all, a mock referendum, and it cost to vote.

The real thing occurred in Ontario’s rural communities of Severn, Gravenhurst, and Tiny, with their large population of cottagers. To the cottagers’ distress, the timing of municipal elections — in November when they were a two- or three-hour drive away — had effectively snuffed out their vote, leading to hard feelings when the towns passed bylaws that harmed cottagers’ interests. To the towns’ credit, they opted for teledemocracy, giving all residents of the community a 10-digit PIN that let them vote by telephone from their year-round residence, or wherever they happened to be, 24 hours a day during a 10-day period.

Using the same techniques, electronic voting can remove the gap between elections, when politicians may feel tempted to abuse their power. Citizens could change their support for a party or a representative whenever they felt their views were no longer being represented. They would still only have one vote, only now that vote could be given at any time and revoked at any time. In effect, elections could now be continuous, forcing politicians to think harder about ways to win continuous support. They could do this by hammering platforms that hang together in the long run, instead of dazzling voters over 40 days of an election campaign with promises that cannot be kept.

MOST VOTERS WOULD NOT WANT TO VOTE ALL THE TIME. Ironically, reforms that put more power into the hands of citizens by letting them vote more often allow citizens to participate less in politics than they do now because few elections would assume cataclysmic proportions. At the same time, such reforms give the views of citizens more force. In Switzerland, voter turnout is lower than in any other western democracy because the Swiss do not need to turn out. For fear of unleashing a citizen initiative, their representatives must respect a wide variety of competing interests and, at the same time, add a touch of moderation to popular proposals before crafting laws.

As put by Oxford political scientist Vernon Bogdanor, while all western European democracies view popular sovereignty as fundamental, “with the single exception of Switzerland, the people play a strictly subordinate role in public affairs. . . . Switzerland is, indeed, the only country in Europe that Rousseau would have regarded as genuinely democratic.” As a result, citizens tend to support laws proposed by the legislature. So, too, in California — the powerhouse of American direct democracy, where citizens initiate and pass less than one per cent of all state laws.

Citizen initiatives exist in 26 U.S. states and in hundreds of Swiss communes. Like any unconstitutional law, citizen laws may be blocked by the courts, but they cannot be disputed by the legislature. But far from emasculating politicians, initiatives make them better servants of the public by better defining their roles.

Direct democracy can also better define the roles of other players in the political field — political specialists such as Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians or Steven Harper of the National Citizens’ Coalition. In the teledemocracy voting that occurred in Canada last November, some voters simplified their lives by giving their PINs and voting instructions to their spouses or friends, much as they might give their spouses the PIN to their debit card. If you’re worried that free trade will gut Canada’s economy, why not entrust your political PIN to Barlow? Or if you’re worried that government is spending too much, perhaps Harper should get your PIN. By transferring our votes to trusted specialists, the majority of citizens can tap into the expertise of people with superior knowledge and a sense of civic spirit that matches their own. Or, citizens who trust a particular political party could let it exercise their vote — something we now do by default when we cast our ballot in the present system.

Under the present all-or-nothing approach to selecting government policies, the benefits of political specialization are lost. Most governments campaign on a bundle of services that includes health, education, welfare, transportation, the environment, and security. One party may be good at protecting the environment, but terrible at health care. Its rival may be good at health care but reprehensible on the environment. Instead of voting for a party while holding our noses, unbundling public services allows us to vote with a clear conscience, at all times.

Direct democracy — any form of voting that bypasses representatives — has another benefit, too; it allows voters to correct individual laws that representatives have passed to their detriment, without getting rid of the government. In April, hepatitis C victims lost their claims for compensation in our federal Parliament, their appeals falling on the deaf ears of a government riding high in the public’s esteem. If Canadians had the right of initiative, they might have succeeded in repealing the law, giving the public both the government and the laws it wanted, without the anguish that followed.

Direct democracy will not just correct arrogant politicians — it will stymie well-connected capitalists, who today — through the use of lobbyists and political contributions — effectively buy the support they need in Parliament. Consider a cable TV baron who wants to jack-up his monopoly rates further. If the increase were worth a million dollars to him, he would be willing to spend close to a million dollars to get the rate hike approved (and studies show this is precisely what happens). But in a direct democracy system, where the victims outnumber the monopolists, the capitalist would be beaten before he started. For this reason, corporate interests fear and revile citizen action. Pointing to the U.S. sugar industry, which a government-backed cartel of domestic producers controls, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman asked how long the cartel would survive if citizens could vote on the following question: “Do you want the government of the USA to continue protecting the sugar cartel so that you pay twice the world price for sugar?”

While many fear moneyed interests, and not the citizenry, will inevitably dominate referendum campaigns, experience to date shows just the opposite: Referendum expert David Schmidt found that money was a decisive factor in only 23 per cent of the 189 state-level initiative campaigns in the U.S. between 1976 and 1984. Money also counted little in municipal initiatives. Poorly funded environmentalists defeated well-funded real estate development companies in two-thirds of the campaigns. In his study of citizen initiative over the last 35 years, University of Southern California economist John Matsusaka found that direct democracy did not lead to more government favors being granted but rather to fewer. The 1992 federal referendum on the Constitution — the Charlottetown accord — provides an example of Canada’s elites — business, social, and political — going down to defeat. The referendum was meant to ratify an agreement between the provinces and Ottawa and, backed by big business, designed to keep Quebec in Confederation. But the Charlottetown accord did more, too. To get union backing, the referendum proposed to enshrine collective rights in the Constitution, which might have made a small non-union firm competing with a large unionized firm guilty of violating the union members’ collective rights to earn a sound living. The referendum also proposed to give social programs constitutional protection. The government and the special interests pushing for a yes vote on this grab bag of proposed changes spent 10 times as much as the no side to promote their views. Yet the no side, whose only powerful spokesman was Pierre Trudeau, won.

Capitalists and other special interests have powerful allies in their opposition to direct democracy — politicians, who would lose their stranglehold on writing new laws. University of California at Berkeley political scientists David Butler and Austin Ranney, who organized a worldwide study of referendums for the American Enterprise Institute, concluded that politicians dislike referendums because they “take decisions out of established hands, and elected leaders can never control — or be responsible for — their outcomes.” To justify keeping direct democracy in the closet, politicians argue that the public is too ignorant to make decisions directly. The American author of The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, the elder statesman of this view, argued that “When the deliberative or judicial powers are vested wholly or partly in the collective body of the people, you must expect error, confusion, and instability.”

The evidence contradicts Hamilton. Instead of producing instability, confusion, and error, direct democracy tends to produce small, responsible government in which politicians hop to the attention of citizens. Economists Werner Pommerehne and Friederich Schneider looked at Swiss municipalities with and without direct democracy. They found that communities with direct democracy would have spent 28 per cent more had they been unable to check their elected leaders. Another study by John Matsusaka compared government finances between the 26 U.S. states with citizen initiative and the 24 states without it. Initiative states spent 12 per cent less per citizen at the state level and 10 per cent more at the local level than non-initiative states. With the help of initiatives the people took fiscal power out of a distant state capital and brought it down to eye level in their communities. Initiative states also had taxes that were lower by 8 per cent and user fees that were higher by 7 per cent. User fees prevent redistribution of money by forcing those who play to pay.

Direct democracy would also clarify non-financial issues. Witness the immense confusion over the wording of the various Quebec referendums on sovereignty association and the like. At the moment, only the party in power may put a referendum question to the people. Better to allow the people to put the question to themselves. Instead of Quebec referendums, we could have Quebec initiatives in which diverse questions about separation have a chance to be heard. Some groups would petition to have a question asking for limited separation, others might ask for either complete separation or, if the answer is no, for a 20-year moratorium on further separation questions. The initiative would unfold over two rounds. In the first, voters would choose the question; in the second, they would vote on it. This type of two-stage direct democracy would allow Quebeckers to spell out their preferred relationship with the rest of Canada. It would also cut out the political middlemen who make careers out of controlling the referendum agenda.

Switzerland, long a patchwork of languages and cultures, shows how moving power toward the people can stabilize politics. In the 19th century, tensions between ethnic Italian, French, German, and Romansch citizens led to a civil war. After the war, the Swiss adopted direct democracy to keep the peace. By letting ethnic pressure diffuse through direct democratic channels, Switzerland has become one of Europe’s most tolerant countries.

DIRECT DEMOCRACY WORKS WELL AT HIGH LEVELS OF GOVERNMENT, but its greatest potential may lie at the municipal level, which most affects citizens in their daily lives. The government of Ontario senses this and plans by the year 2000 to give municipalities the power of referendum and initiative. To pave the way, Ontario is cleaning up municipal finances, a muddle that provides municipalities with subsidies totalling a third to a half of their financing from the province and Ottawa. If a city mismanages itself, another government is there to make better-managed cities pay for its mistakes. In the past, the province regulated and dominated local government in order to keep down mismanagement. The price to pay for this control was unaccountability — spending power was removed from the local level, where people could see it, and hidden in a provincial capital. When cities shed their subsidies and gain greater power to charge user fees — as is happening in Ontario — local government becomes truly local, and local democracy, especially through direct democracy, becomes truly democratic. If Ontario’s experiment works, citizens of other provinces may demand the same changes. Some hope also lies in Quebec, where citizens may block municipalities that want to borrow money for construction projects. Unfortunately, Quebec citizens seldom use this power because higher levels of government pick up a large part of the tab for municipal blundering. Montreal’s 1976 Olympic stadium fiasco — which contributed greatly to the decline of that extraordinary city — is but one sorry example of the wrong-headed decisions that arise when those making decisions aren’t fully accountable for the consequences and when the costs are hidden from citizens.

THE PRESIDENT OF SWITZERLAND, THE WORLD CAPITAL OF DIRECT DEMOCRACY, is an unknown who goes to work on the tram but keeps his country going like clockwork. Because frugal, low-profile government is too much for our grandstanding leaders to bear, elites on the left and right of politics, claiming that the people don’t know what to do with power, join hands when facing the threat of direct democracy. It is natural that our leaders, whose desire for the limelight and susceptibility to special interests have produced grandiose plans, crippling debts and crumbling health and education systems, should resist direct democracy. Referendums and initiatives cut these middlemen out of power and let people decide issues for themselves. It is also natural for the public to continue its methodical, cautious, centuries-old drive for greater political freedom. They temper democracy’s worst aspects — the unaccountability of politicians — and bring out what is ultimately its best — the common sense of the common people.


1.Simon Threlkeld  Toronto, responds: July 14, 1998

2.André Carrel Rossland, British Colombia, responds: July 21, 1998

3.Filip Palda Thornhill, Ontario, responds: December 27, 1998

4.Miha Ahronovitz Toronto, responds: January 19, 1999

5.Simon Threlkeld

black line

Simon Threlkeld, Toronto, responds: July 14, 1998

As Filip Palda notes, in jurisdictions from California to Switzerland, citizens who gather the required number of petition signatures have the right to initiate binding referendums. Unfortunately, referendums are ill-suited for the informed decision making necessary for meaningful democracy and are heavily skewed in favor of wealth and power. Canada needs a better method of citizen lawmaking.

Groups of citizens chosen by lottery largely ran the Greek democracies of the fifth and fourth centuries BC; and in England, the United States, and other common-law countries, randomly chosen citizens make up trial juries. Adopting this basic idea from classical Greece and from the Anglo-American legal tradition can give citizens an effective say in lawmaking today.

Referendum voters may be unrepresentative of the citizenry: A mobilized minority can defeat a majority’s interests and preferences, especially where voter turnout is low. Or, men may vote more than women or the upper-middle class more than the poor, and so on. But randomly selected juries ensure a representative cross section of the citizenry. The larger the random sample, the more accurate the cross section. For example, a jury made up of 1,000 randomly sampled citizens has the same proportion of people with a given characteristic as the general population, within 4 per cent 99 times out of 100.

Stratification can further increase jury representativeness. If for example, 51 per cent of the citizens are women, then 51 per cent of the jurors can be randomly chosen from women and 49 per cent from men. Jury selection can also easily account for age, income, race, and residence.

For their efforts, jurors should be paid enough to let them work full time for the days, weeks, or months necessary to become well informed about a proposed law. By having a capacity to make an informed decision combined with being a representative cross section of the public, a jury expresses the informed will of the public — the highest democratic mandate a law can have.

Each year there can be a deadline for citizens to propose laws. All of the proposals, together with supporting arguments, can be posted on a web site. This serves as a notice to potential opponents who can publish their arguments on the same site.

Next, the supporters and opponents of the proposed law appear before a jury for a short preliminary hearing. The jury decides by majority vote whether to reject the proposal or to refer it to full in-depth hearings.

Hearings consist of presentations by the proposal’s supporters and opponents, of the jurors asking any questions they may have, and of the jury breaking into smaller subgroups to deliberate the proposal’s merits. If several mutually exclusive proposals are made on the same topic at the same time, they can all go before the same jury for consideration. If a jury approves the proposal by a majority vote after a full hearing, the proposal becomes a law. In this way, laws supported by the informed will of the public can be brought into effect even if the elected government opposes or ignores them — a giant step forward for citizen sovereignty.

The cases for and against the proposed law need to be under capable and unified direction. If the opponents of the proposed law cannot agree on who will direct their case, the various people or groups who wish to be in charge can appear before a jury for a short hearing. This jury, of perhaps 15 citizens, would base their decision on who can do the most thorough and effective job. If several citizen groups propose the same law, then who will direct the case in favor can be decided in the same way.

A special jury commission can devise the best possible arrangements and procedures for juries on an ongoing basis. Having a jury, rather than politicians, democratically choose each member of the commission for a set term would prevent patronage and political manipulation. The jury commission’s decisions can also be subject to jury approval, ensuring that its decisions are themselves in accord with the informed will of the citizens. Elected governments should not be involved in this process since they have a serious conflict of interest — specifically, keeping legislative power for themselves and preventing it from falling into the hands of citizens.

In the initiative and referendum, citizens only learn about proposed laws in their spare time, as the spirit moves them, and often rely on summary TV coverage or on even more superficial 30-second TV ads. Also, the more numerous the proposals, the less likely citizens will become informed about them. The cost of running an effective campaign, whether for or against a proposal, is far beyond the means of the vast majority of public interest groups, regardless of how sound their ideas may be. The media can further skew the process by a deliberate or accidental bias that favors one side over the other.

By contrast, juries meet face to face with the supporters and opponents of the proposed law. Capable public interest groups with little in the bank are on a far more level playing field with the rich and powerful since appearing before a jury costs far less than running a referendum campaign. Jurors get the benefit of the best available arguments, not just those that are well financed, or that appear in TV ads or in news coverage. Further, no matter how many laws are proposed, each receives a jury’s full-time, focused attention.

With referendums, onerous requirements to gather a large number of petition signatures within a set time restrict access to the ballot. Where paid petition circulators are allowed, the wealthy can buy their way onto the ballot by paying for an army of petition gatherers. Poorer groups, no matter how good their proposals may be, can only get an issue onto the ballot by mobilizing a sufficiently large and effective force of volunteer petition gatherers.

Sometimes, politicians make the signature requirement so burdensome that no one can get an issue on the ballot. For example, in Mike Harris’s draft referendum legislation, citizens have 180 days to gather the signatures of 10 per cent of the eligible voters in all of the seven regions into which the draft legislation divides Ontario. That’s about 670,000 signatures, all of which must, under the legislation, be collected by volunteers. No public interest group, coalition, or popular movement will be able to meet this requirement. The Ontario government purports to be opening the door to citizen-initiated laws, but its signature requirement locks up that door like a Fort Knox vault. With juries, the first stage is not a petition drive but rather a preliminary hearing. Jurors decide whether a proposed law gets further consideration based on its merits, not on who can organize or purchase the vast amount of donkey work needed to meet the signature requirement.

Juries, not signature requirements and referendums, are the way to go for citizen lawmaking.

black line

André Carrel, Rossland, British Colombia, responds: July 21, 1998

Did you know that Rossland, British Columbia, established its own constitution in 1990, and has lived with it ever since? Did you know that the citizens of Rossland have voted on 13 binding referendum questions since 1990?

I am the municipal administrator for the City of Rossland, and I can assure you from eight years of experience with our municipal constitution that trusting citizens works, at least as good as assuming that they need to be protected from their own stupidity.

black line

Filip Palda replies

Mr. Threlkeld believes he has discovered a new form of representation in which citizens propose laws to randomly chosen juries of their peers. These juries have a few months to learn the ropes of government and to apply their knowledge in deciding which laws should be passed.

I do not mean to discourage Mr. Threlkeld, but this is partly how democracy works today. Laws do not pop out of our politicians’ heads like Greek goddesses. Groups of citizens put pressure on our leaders, and whoever pushes hardest and most ably gets his way. Think of our present telecommunications laws. Mr. Threlkeld or any other citizen can apply to the CRTC for a hearing. At these hearings, CRTC commissioners listen to citizens’ views on what policies will best serve the public interest. The commissioners then make up their minds. Mr. Threlkeld may also submit bills to the House of Commons. These bills will be studied at the committee stage (a mini-jury) and may either be submitted to the floor for reading or not pursued, as would potential laws in Mr. Threlkeld’s system.

Mr. Threlkeld believes juries would give citizens an equal chance to present laws and that money and the ability to push ideas forward would not be important. Why he believes this is not clear. How would his jury decide? Citizens with political savvy and the bucks to back it up would hire top lobbyists to make their case before the political jury. That also happens to be how things work today.

The main difference between Mr. Threlkeld’s scheme and representative democracy as we know it is a lack of expertise and accountability. Citizens yanked from their lives of designing web pages, patrolling national parks, or washing car windows at street corners would not be apt to juggle and filter the competing demands on government. If they had politics in their blood, they would have become politicians.

Politicians face the awesome task of passing laws that do not push or upset any one group too much. The public’s wrath awaits them at the polls if they fall off this tiger. Mr. Threlkeld’s juries would suffer no such wrath. Representatives are plucked at random and then returned to society after a fixed term. Without the spur of re-election digging in their sides, why would citizens in power pay attention through the endless committee meetings and the learned arguments of lobbyists? Why would they fear unjustly favoring one group over the other? This lack of attention to detail and fairness would be reflected in policies that upset the citizenry.

Direct democracy is not a substitute for representative democracy. It is a complement. We do not need politicians to interpret all our wishes. While politicians should decide questions that require a great deal of specialized knowledge — such as delicate diplomatic questions concerning Bosnia and the intricacies of pollution emission regulation — questions about the treatment of young criminal offenders and the degree to which local communities should finance their own affairs are best left to the public. Even where politicians can interpret our wishes, we need direct democracy to keep them in line. Direct democracy reminds our leaders that should they stray from the public’s will, the public has a way to bypass any special deals politicians and narrow interest groups have whipped up. Far from allowing big money to dominate politics, direct democracy lowers the cost of political participation for the ordinary citizen. He does not need to hire expert lobbyists to represent his views to recalcitrant leaders. Direct democracy strips away layers of middlemen who get between the public will and the governments’ actions.

Nevertheless, Mr. Threlkeld’s idea should not be rejected based on one expert’s opinion. Democracy in Canada lacks innovation, and what Mr. Threlkeld is proposing is an innovation. Why not give it a try? The answer is that we probably won’t try it because we do not have the direct democratic instruments that would allow Mr. Threlkeld to bypass his leaders and take his case to a direct vote of citizens. The one place where Mr. Threlkeld might have some success is in Rossland. This small western community is the bud of direct democracy in Canada. Rossland’s citizens have learned to be open to new ideas about democratic reform, and might give Mr. Threlkeld the welcome that mainstream Canadian politicians will not.

black line

Miha Ahronovitz, Thornhill, Ontario, responds: December 27, 1998

What an extraordinary article!

Perhaps direct democracy is the essential democracy. But isn’t the majority of citizens functionally illiterate? A hypothetical direct vote with the question, “Do you agree to have direct voting and democracy?” would be rejected immediately by a crashing majority of 75 per cent!

This in Canada, one of the most developed countries in the world. What would happen with a would-be direct democracy in Quebec, if they (the elected politicians) decide to be independent?

And what about direct democracy in Zimbabwe?

If indirect democracy is nothing but a orchard for demagogy, where do we have a true democracy today?

I would propose a compulsory course at school on how a citizen can vote directly. Filip Palda’s article should be made a compulsory reference.

We can devise a system on merit points for the right of direct voting. A PhD will have 5 points. An illiterate will have 1 point. An exceptional citizen, like Mother Theresa, can have 10 points. If one grants someone else the right to vote for him, he can not give away more than 1 point. Starting from, say, 3 points, the voter can have a PIN. If a person has under 3 points, he can vote in person since he would not feel comfortable using a PIN.

Is this complicated? But who says that life is simple and one man, one vote is the epitome of justice?

black line

Simon Threlkeld, Toronto, responds: January 19, 1999

In my reply to Filip Palda’s article, I argue that jury assembly hearings provide a much better basis for informed citizen lawmaking than citizen initiated referendums. In his reply Filip Palda argues that citizen initiated referendums are better.

Filip Palda’s objections to jury assemblies are without merit and are bizarre in that they all apply as much or more to the citizen initiated referendums he supports.

In his second paragraph Filip Palda seems to suggest that there is no need for jury assemblies to play a role in legislation because citizens can already make proposals to the government as well as to government appointed bodies like the CRTC. This same argument can just as well be made about citizen initiated referendums.

Unfortunately, government and government appointed bodies are not very good at carrying out the people’s wishes. This is why citizen lawmaking is necessary, whether in the form of the referendums favored by Filip Palda or in the form of the jury assembly hearings I favor.

In his fourth paragraph, Filip Palda claims that the ordinary citizens who make up jury assemblies lack “expertise.” He seems oblivious to the public’s lack of expertise being far more of a problem in the referendums he supports. Jurors become far better informed about the proposed laws they vote on than referendum voters do. Referendum voters, unlike jurors, only learn about proposed laws willy nilly in their spare time amidst the distractions of daily living.

Another objection Filip Palda makes in his fourth paragraph is that jurors lack “accountability” for how they vote. It apparently escapes his attention that referendum voters also lack accountability.

Politicians should be accountable to the people so that they will carry out the people’s wishes. But a jury assembly can be relied on to carry out the people’s wishes by virtue of being an accurate cross section of the people. This is much better than mere accountability.

In addition, the real world accountability of politicians is largely undemocratic. Politicians are disproportionately accountable to the rich and powerful interests that are best able to finance election campaigns and generate effective publicity.

In his third paragraph, Filip Palda objects that those with “the bucks” would have an advantage in making presentations to a jury assembly. Earth to Palda: running a referendum campaign and meeting the signature requirement is many times more expensive than presenting to a jury assembly. The far lower financial threshold involved in appearing before a jury assembly opens up the legislative process to capable public interest groups with little in the bank and no big business backers. The far higher financial threshold of the referendum and the signature requirement excludes the vast majority of public interest groups. This makes referendums and the signature requirement largely undemocratic and plutocratic.

In his fifth paragraph, continuing on the themes of jurors being unaccountable and lacking expertise, Filip Palda claims that jurors will be inattentive to details and fairness. However, this is not the experience with trial and coroner’s juries who do tend to be concerned with details, fairness, and getting it right. Instead, it is the far more poorly informed referendum voting favored by Filip Palda that is apt to be characterized by an ignorance of details and of what the unfair consequences might be.

In his sixth paragraph, Filip Palda may be suggesting that I want to substitute jury assembly legislation for government legislation. I am not so ambitious. Instead I only want jury assemblies to supplement and influence government legislation.

In his first paragraph, Filip Palda seems to suggest that I want jury assemblies to “learn the ropes of government.” But all I expect of them is the more modest accomplishment of becoming well informed about the proposed laws they vote on.

Perhaps there are really two Filip Paldas: The one who wrote the article who believes in citizen rule and that democracy’s best aspect is ultimately “the common sense of the common people.” The other the one who wrote the reply using some of the stock arguments against referendums and democracy in general to criticize the idea of jury assembly hearings for citizen proposed laws.

This entry was posted in Electoral Reform. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s