The Case for a Citizens' Assembly

Sunday, April 30, 2006

William F. Buckley once said he would sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than in one governed by the faculty of Harvard University. Reframing the governance question for California voters—who, by all measures, are at the peak of frustration with elected state officials—why not empower an assembly of citizens, randomly selected, to address some of the tough policy questions facing the Golden State?

Before dismissing the idea, consider that a citizens’ assembly—in which everyday citizens deliberate on select issues of state policy—is one more implement in the toolkit of direct democracy that Californians love to employ. Frustration with political gridlock in Sacramento has led to an overflow of direct democracy, as voters in just the last five years have placed more than 70 propositions on the ballot and have recalled their governor. But incubating ideas in a citizens’ assembly makes a lot more sense than cooking up ballot propositions in some political consultant’s kitchen, an approach voters finally rejected in the November 2005 special election.

Two California legislators have now proposed a bill to create a citizens’ assembly that would address questions of state political reform, a matter too hot for politicians to handle. Assemblymen Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, and Keith Richman, R-Northridge (Los Angeles County), hope to build bipartisan support for a state constitutional amendment to create such a citizens’ assembly. Such a process, overseen by the secretary of state, would generate representative pools of citizens in each assembly district from which one man and one woman would be randomly chosen. The assembly would meet twice a month for a year to propose suggested reforms.

Incubating ideas in a citizens’ assembly makes a lot more sense than cooking up ballot propositions in some political consultant’s kitchen.

Could this work? It depends on how you define success. If one measure of success is to reengage ordinary citizens who have checked out of the political process, it seems promising. With polls showing more than 70 percent of Californians frustrated with elected state officials, there would be little to lose on that score. Imagine the public’s level of interest in regular folks in the state capitol deliberating on the tough issues of the day. If reality shows have taken television by storm, why not reality government?

Other promising results might be a more collaborative process than we now see in Sacramento and fresh, bipartisan solutions to some of Califor-nia’s huge problems. A study done last year by Viewpoint Learning provides some encouragement. In half-day and full-day dialogues, 500 ordinary Californians discovered that, given time, they could come together on a range of nonideological, pragmatic solutions to thorny policy problems.

Finally, it should be noted that citizens’ assemblies have a track record, albeit limited. Faced with similar voter frustration and legislative gridlock, British Columbia convened a citizens’ assembly to propose a method of proportional voting, as contentious an issue as political redistricting in California.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform involved 160 randomly selected British Columbians who studied various approaches and proposed a complex set of solutions for voters to consider. Although their proposals did not garner the required 60 percent voter approval (missing by 2 points), the ideas and the process were so strongly supported that British Columbia’s legislature will present the reforms to voters again at the next election. New Jersey has also experimented with a citizens’ assembly on tax reform.

With polls showing more than 70 percent of Californians frustrated with elected state officials, what is there to lose?

Democracy is hard work, and, for those who participate, a citizens’ assembly will involve heavy lifting. But we rarely value those things in which we have little investment, so perhaps it’s time for some of us citizens to roll up our sleeves and invest in democracy in California. Leaving it to the professionals is simply not working.

This essay appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 12, 2006. Available from the Hoover Press is Leviathan: The Growth of Local Government and the Erosion of Liberty, by Clint Bolick. To order, call 800.935.2882 or visit

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