Reviving Direct Democracy with Citizen Assemblies



Making Direct Democracy Deliberative through Random Assemblies
Politics & Society
Page numbers: 


The authors argue that direct-democratic processes, such as citizen-initiated legislation and referenda, are popular with electorates throughout the world. In practice however, they have largely fallen short of their goals due to citizens being provided insufficient and often misleading information, inadequate choices among alternative options, and the hijacking of the process by special interests. They have often resulted in the passing of unconstitutional statutes, unintended harmful consequences and occasionally a means for majority tyranny.

To improve the deliberation around modern direct democracy, the authors propose the use of randomly-selected citizen assemblies. Building on case studies from British Columbia and Oregon, they suggest five different types of assemblies to complement the various stages of the legislative process:

  • Priority Conference: an occasional assembly to discuss and select issues that require legislative action. This is meant to put meaningful issues on the public agenda, particularly those that have been blocked by special interests.
  • Design Panel: would evaluate and potentially revise proposed initiatives and referenda before they are circulated to the public for signature collection.
  • Citizens' Assembly: would draft the policy proposal to be put up for a public vote. Would require a longer time commitment and access to relevant budget data, senior bureaucrats, policy experts, etc.
  • Citizens' Initiation Review: provides issue analysis and a balanced appraisal of any initiative before it is put to a vote.
  • Policy Jury: this is a fairly radical proposal that could place final approval of the initiative with this assembly standing in for a public vote.

The authors sees these assemblies as a remedy for the 'deficiencies of initiative and referendum elections to bring them closer to the deliberative democratic ideal'. Their proposals are meant to be an evolutionary step, building on the existing institutions of direct democracy and beginning a process towards 'more profound citizen empowerment in the long run'.


Thumbnail image: ItzaFineDay/Flickr.

John Gastil

Pennsylvania State University

Robert Richards

Pennsylvania State University

Published Date
June 1, 2013