Randomly selected citizens no legislators

26. October 2022
Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat

In the Swiss canton of Vaud, a randomly selected citizens' chamber was to be created with the help of a popular initiative. The special thing about it: the assembly should also be able to pass laws. The initiative aimed to amend the cantonal constitution accordingly. The canton's Council of State declared the popular initiative inadmissible.

The organisation AG!SSONS (French for "Let's act!") justified its initiative with what it sees as deficits in representative democracy. "Currently, decision-making power operates within a distorted political system. We note that the representative vote is not equal, as it favours certain social groups and marginalises others," it says on the AG!SSONS website.

Parliament blocked on certain issues

The need to be re-elected triggers fear of debate and leads to the avoidance of certain sensitive issues. "Elected politicians themselves admit that the parliament is 'blocked' on certain issues," explains the democracy initiative.

AG!ISSONS proposed that each Citizens' Chamber be composed of 200 randomly selected people to represent a cross-section of the population. The chamber should deal intensively with the issue at hand, listening to the arguments of various interest groups and experts. This would produce recommendations of high quality.

75 per cent approval for binding decision

"If a proposal is approved by at least 75 per cent of the chamber, it will result in a legal text with decision-making effect, which has to be implemented by the authorities," AG!SSONS proposed. A Legal Secretariat was meant to draft the laws, which in turn should be confirmed by the Citizens' Chamber. The government, parliament and citizens of the canton of Vaud would have been allowed to propose amendments to the draft law.

A Citizens' Senate with 150 members - composed of former members of the citizens' chamber - should have been required to select two topics every six months, which the citizens' chamber would then deal with. The members of this senate would have been released from their work and would be reimbursed for all their expenses. Citizens should also have been able to convene a Citizens' Chamber with at least 10,000 signatures. It should also have been possible for several citizens' chambers to meet at the same time, each dealing with a specific issue.

Parliament could have amended Citizens' Chamber act

The Grand Council, as the cantonal parliament, could have amended a law passed by a Citizens' Chamber. However, the parliament's vote on it would have to be cleared by the Citizens' Senate. This would have required a majority of at least 75 per cent of the Citizens' Senate members participating in the vote on it. This regulation should have lead to a public debate on the amendment. With a referendum or a popular initiative, the people would also have had the opportunity to reverse decisions of the Citizens' Chamber.

A Council for Rules and Procedures was meant to oversee the quality of the Citizens' Chamber's work. This council would have been composed of impartial and independent experts who would have served for four years. Members of the experts council would have been removable at any time by a majority vote of the Citizens' Senate. The council was also meant to examine the issues proposed for the Citizens' Chamber and to confirm them if they are legally admissible. In the event of rejection, an appeal could have been lodged with the Citizens' Senate. A Coordination Office for Deliberative Democracy was meant to prepare and conduct the meetings of the Citizens' Chamber and Citizens' Senate.

Autonomous body

The Citizens' Chamber and its auxiliary bodies would have been autonomous in matters of organisation, administration and finance, according to the AG!SSONS proposal. "The Grand Council shall provide for an adequate budget to ensure the effective functioning of the Citizens' Chamber and its subsidiary bodies. The proposal for the annual budget is calculated by the Coordination Office for Deliberative Democracy," the People's Initiative proposal stated.

"This decision-making system leads out of political polarisation, brings the population together and leads to decisions that serve the common good," AG!SSONS said. The sortition procedure ensures that the diversity of the population is represented and that everyone has an equal chance to participate. This creates trust. Citizens would be put at the centre of the decision-making process.

Popular initiative inadmissible

The State Council of the Canton of Vaud declared the popular initiative inadmissible on 25 October 2022. Reason: The popular initiative envisaged the creation of a randomly selected citizens' chamber endowed with powers at least equal to those of the Grand Council and even greater, since the latter could no longer pass laws on a subject as soon as a citizens' chamber dealt with the same subject. This approach would not allow the people to directly elect their legislative representatives.

AG!SSONS had argued that the popular initiative met the admissibility requirements, as decisions of the citizens' chamber would be subject to an optional referendum. In the opinion of the Council of State, however, the possibility of a referendum does not replace the election of MPs. According to the Federal Constitution, the cantons are not obliged to allow a referendum on legislative issues. They are, however, obliged to provide for the direct election of their legislative body. This last point was therefore the decisive aspect.

Legal complaint filed

AG!SSONS had formulated a 15-page legal complaint in December 2022, which was filed with the Constitutional Court of the Canton of Vaud. The organisation demanded that the Vaudois Constitutional Court annul the invalidity decision of the Vaudois State Council and order the State Council to issue a new decision validating the initiative both in form and content.

On 8 June 2023, however, the Constitutional Court confirmed the legal opinion of the Council of State in a ruling. It declared the initiative invalid because it was not democratic. The initiating group of the popular initiative had then decided not to file an appeal with the Federal Supreme Court. This is to avoid setting a precedent at the level of jurisdiction that would block similar initiatives in other cantons.

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