This series, by BANR founder Ted Wachtel, applies the concept of citizens’ assemblies to an urgent need that the U.S. Congress avoids — gun violence and how to prevent it. Wachtel identifies the reasons legislators can’t do it and why a diverse group of citizens can. No longer theoretical, in the last few years citizens’ assemblies have been used around the world to make thoughtful decisions about challenging and often controversial problems.
5. National citizens’ assemblies can be tried without changing the Constitution, through “voluntary delegation.”
Authority versus Influence
In 1996-1998, eight Texas electric utility companies asked James Fishkin—now director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University—to survey their customers’ views on energy options, which included renewable energy, energy conservation and the related costs.
What transformed the usual partisan political battle between environmentalists and the energy industry was a series of citizens’ assemblies, using Fishkin’s “Deliberative Poll®” process.
Deliberative Polls have remarkable credibility, because participants are selected by lottery from the target population; in this case, making each deliberative group truly representative of the eight power companies’ customers.
- A deliberative poll starts with a conventional telephone poll, asking a few hundred randomly selected people several questions.
- Next, the respondents are invited to join, in person, a weekend of presentations and deliberations about the issues identified in the poll.
- In advance of the weekend, each participant receives a non-partisan briefing book, which presents the pros and cons of each of the choices, developed to fairly represent conflicting views.
- At the close of the weekend, the participants respond to the poll questions a second time.
The results of the Texas energy poll shocked everyone.
Texans—from the gas and oil state—who drive more miles in more pickup trucks and SUVs than folks in any other state, were willing to pay extra money for renewable energy and for energy conservation.
From the telephone poll to the final poll, customer willingness to pay extra money jumped 30 percent, to 84 percent for renewable energy and to 73 percent for energy conservation.
Fishkin named a book using his characterization of the process as “Democracy When the People Are Thinking.”
He reports that in 109 deliberative polls held in 28 countries around the world, after hearing speakers and deliberating with others, people change their choices from the first telephone poll almost 70 percent of the time—a surprising result because people usually are more resistant to change.
When Legislators Let the Citizens Decide
The Texas electric power industry and the Texas government were deeply influenced by the unexpected results, and acted accordingly. In effect, the legislators had voluntarily delegated their authority to the eight citizen assemblies, because they truly represented the informed opinion of the Texas public.
In 1999, Governor George W. Bush signed into law Texas Senate Bill 7, a massive electric deregulation bill that included a mandate for renewable energy. At the time—not surprisingly—Texas was 49th of the 50 United States in renewable energy production. Today, Texas is number one.
Just as with renewable energy in Texas, members of Congress and the President could break the partisan gridlock on gun control, by trusting ordinary people to decide.
Legislators can, without an amendment to the Constitution, voluntarily delegate their authority to a one-time U.S. National Citizens’ Assembly on Gun Violence, so we can finally have a meaningful public conversation about the gun violence that plagues America.
At the same time, we can experiment with building a new reality that ends our partisan crisis in democratic governance.