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

Essay by Ariel Procaccia: “In 1983 the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution enshrined an abortion ban that had prevailed in the nation for more than a century. Public opinion on the issue shifted in the new millennium, however, and by 2016 it was clear that a real debate could no longer be avoided. But even relatively progressive politicians had long steered clear of the controversy rather than risk alienating voters. Who would be trustworthy and persuasive enough to break the deadlock?

The answer was a bunch of ordinary people. Seriously. The Irish Parliament convened a citizens’ assembly, whose 99 members were chosen at random. The selection process ensured that the group’s composition represented the Irish population along dimensions such as age, gender and geography. Over several months in 2016 and 2017, the assembly heard expert opinions and held extensive discussions regarding the legalization of abortion. Its recommendation, supported by a significant majority of members, was to allow abortions in all circumstances, subject to limits on the length of pregnancy. These conclusions set the stage for a 2018 referendum in which 66 percent of Ireland’s voters chose to repeal the Eighth Amendment, enabling abortion to be legalized. Such an outcome had been almost inconceivable a few years earlier.

The Irish citizens’ assembly is just one example of a widespread phenomenon. In recent years hundreds of such groups have convened around the world, their members randomly selected from the concerned population and given time and information to aid their deliberations. Citizens’ assemblies in France, Germany, the U.K., Washington State and elsewhere have charted pathways for reducing carbon emissions. An assembly in Canada sought methods of mitigating hate speech and fake news; another in Australia recommended ethical approaches to human genome editing; and yet another in Oregon identified policies for COVID pandemic recovery. 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…(More)”.