Citizens’ Assemblies Are Upgrading Democracy: Fair Algorithms Are Part of the Program

Article by Ariel Procaccia: “…Taken together, these assemblies have demonstrated an impressive capacity to uncover the will of the people and build consensus.

The effectiveness of citizens’ assemblies isn’t surprising. Have you ever noticed how politicians grow a spine the moment they decide not to run for reelection? Well, a citizens’ assembly is a bit like a legislature whose members make a pact barring them from seeking another term in office. The randomly selected members are not beholden to party machinations or outside interests; they are free to speak their mind and vote their conscience.

What’s more, unlike elected bodies, these assemblies are chosen to mirror the population, a property that political theorists refer to as descriptive representation. For example, a typical citizens’ assembly has a roughly equal number of men and women (some also ensure nonbinary participation), whereas the average proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments worldwide was 26 percent in 2021—a marked increase from 12 percent in 1997 but still far from gender balance. Descriptive representation, in turn, lends legitimacy to the assembly: citizens seem to find decisions more acceptable when they are made by people like themselves.

As attractive as descriptive representation is, there are practical obstacles to realizing it while adhering to the principle of random selection. Overcoming these hurdles has been a passion of mine for the past few years. Using tools from mathematics and computer science, my collaborators and I developed an algorithm for the selection of citizens’ assemblies that many practitioners around the world are using. Its story provides a glimpse into the future of democracy—and it begins a long time ago…(More)”.

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