Six Suggestions on How to Reform American Democracy

In the upcoming Boston Review, 6 proposals by 6 scholars, presented to members of Congress, on how to reform our democracy.

TWO: Let citizen assemblies draw districts. [Archon Fung]…

Many reformers favor independent commissions—such as those used in Arizona—as a remedy for this gerrymandering. However, it may be difficult to inoculate such commissions from partisan influence. Most of the notables who would be appointed to such blue-ribbon affairs would likely have political histories and established loyalties. Those who did not would likely be the targets of intense partisan pressure and subterfuge. Even if commissions were politically immunized, they could still be summoned to serve highly partisan ends, as in the recent attempt to initiate redistricting by California’s Republican governor. Furthermore, electoral districting is never merely a technical exercise. Ethical choices must be made. For example, is the coherence of communities more important than competitiveness and political accountability? Appointed experts have dubious democratic standing when it comes to such decisions.

Consider an alternative method of redistricting in which ordinary citizens formulate redistricting plans. The main benefits of this directly democratic alternative are:

Fairness. The formulation of electoral boundaries would be insulated from partisan and incumbent influence.

Ethical transparency. The democratic values and rationales for electoral boundaries would be transparent, explicit, and determinative.

Democratic legitimacy. Electoral boundaries created by ordinary citizens rather than political elites or independent “experts” would build democratic legitimacy for, and popular ownership of, a political system that is now regarded with justified cynicism.

The idea of citizen assemblies as an element of electoral reform is not new.