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Forum History

 

The Forum was established by the Third Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe  (Warsaw, May 2005), to strengthen democracy, political freedoms and citizens' participation.

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Forum previous sessions

Forum_Democracy2011

(Limassol, Cyprus, October)

Interdependence of democracy and social cohesion.

New: Proceedings

"Radical measures taken in many countries to try to balance public budgets are both necessary and understandable” but  “Countries are running a high risk of seriously undermining the European model of social cohesion.”  declared Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland while opening the Cyprus Forum.

2010

(Yerevan, October)

Perspectives 2020 Democracy in Europe - Principles and Challenges

Proceedings

 

''The Council of Europe has a unique strategic role to play in strengthening good democratic governance at all levels in the European space''. Democracy, or rather good democratic governance, is now not only intrinsically linked to the respect of human rights but is also recognised as the most effective form of governance to ensure stability, sustainability and well-being.

 That was the main message of the 2010 Forum.

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2009

(Kyiv, October)

Electoral systems: strengthening democracy in the 21st century

(Proceedings)

 "In a genuine democracy, the citizen is sovereign and the voter decides" - that was the main message of the 2009 Forum, which highlighted the need for greater public involvement, with a view to increasing voter turnout and ensuring that all stages of public life are democratic..

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2008

(Madrid, October)

"E-democracy: who dares?"

 

The discussions addressed the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on democracy.

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2007

(Stockholm, June)

"Power and empowerment - The interdependence of democracy and human rights"

 

This event addressed issues such as the role and responsibilities of the opposition, representative democracy at the local and regional level, empowerment of the individual and non-discrimination, respect for freedom of expression and association for civil society, and fostering democracy, human rights and social networks.

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2006

(Moscow, October)

"The role of political parties in the building of democracy"

 

The Forum reflected on  the role and responsibilities of political parties in finding democratic solutions to contemporary challenges, the interaction between political parties and with other actors in the democratic process, and the building and strengthening of democratic institutions.

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Launch meeting (Warsaw, November 2005)

"Citizens' participation"

 

 

The discussions addressed the state of contemporary democracy in Europe.

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Previous projects

("Making

Democratic institutions work")

 

Our “wish list” of recommended reforms

1. Universal citizenship

This proposal would grant full rights of membership in the political community from the moment of birth to all persons born within its territory or to all of its citizens living abroad, as well as to those children who are subsequently naturalised. Recognising the manifest incapacity of children to exercise their formal rights directly and independently, this reform further proposes that the parents of each child be empowered to exercise the right to vote until such time as the child reaches the age of maturity established by national law. Each child would be issued a voting registration card or whatever device is already in use to identify legitimate voters and would be informed of his or her (deferred) right to vote. The decision as to exactly which parent would actually exercise this right for their children, prior to their reaching the age of 16 or 18, would be determined by agreement between the eligible parents. In the case of one parent or a guardian, that person would vote.

This reform should make the local, regional or national democracy more “future-oriented”. Not only would allowing children the vote constitute a symbolic recognition that the polity has a responsibility for its future generations, but it should also provide a real incentive for the young to develop an early interest in politics and to do so through an awareness of the importance of whatever level of political aggregation granted them this right. Precisely because of this incentive, it is to be expected that children – once they become aware of the right that their parents are exercising in their name in parliamentary or presidential elections – will increasingly hold their parents accountable for the way in which they distribute their electoral preferences. This also suggests that the reform measure should increase various forms of inter-generational discussion about political issues and partisan orientations in general – strengthening channels of political socialisation and improving the elements of citizen training within the family that seem to have considerably diminished in recent decades. It may even compensate for the prodigious decline in a sense of party identification and probably would exert pressure on politicians to lower the age of political maturity from 18 to 16, if not even younger.

Universal citizenship should also serve as a double stimulus to encourage voting among young parents since their children would probably put pressure on them to vote and the weight of their vote once cast would be increased according to the number of children they had. Moreover, politicians would recognise this fact and orient their appeals and policies more towards this (often neglected) segment of the population.

Finally, enfranchising young children and adolescents should contribute to a greater equilibrium of the political process over the life cycle. With increasing life spans and a stable age of retirement, older persons have become an increasingly large component of the total citizenry. They have both the time and financial resources to participate disproportionately in the electoral and policy processes – with the result that an increasing proportion of public funds are being spent on the health and welfare of the aged, and a decreasing sum on the education and training of the young. In the longer run, this is bound to be a self-defeating process as a smaller and less productive set of active workers must pay for an increasingly larger set of retired workers.

2. Discretionary voting

Traditional liberal democratic theory stresses not only one person, one vote, but also that this vote be indivisible – cast for a single party list or candidate. Some systems allow for a limited degree of “transferability” by giving the voter the right to indicate a second preference or the possibility of changing the order of preference in a party listing. More recently, a few polities have expanded the choice of electors by allowing them to vote for “none of the above” (NOTA). In general, we are convinced that such “discretionary” extensions of the voting process are desirable. They make elections more interesting, they treat the citizen with greater respect and they promote more political competition, not just between parties and candidates, but also with unusual combinations and prospective alternatives.

Historically, the use of discretion was limited by practical considerations, such as the amount of time and attention that one could expect from the average voter during the time that he or she spent in the voting booth. If, as we advocate, European democracies were to switch gradually to postal or electronic voting, the potentiality for providing more information and exercising more discretion could be greatly expanded. The citizen would have a long period in which to express his or her choices – say, a week or more – and one can, therefore, imagine offering a wider range of choices. For example, a citizen could be given not just one vote but a number of “voting points”, – say, one hundred – to distribute across candidates or voting lists, as well as to allocate to “none of the above”, if the preceding choices were unappealing. Voters would have a chance to record the intensity of their preference for a specific party or candidate and that, itself, would become a part of the public record. For example, winners with a higher proportion of 100% preferences could rightly claim greater public support than those who won by the same aggregate margin but with more mitigated patterns of voter support. A growing number of “none of the above” votes would provide a much clearer signal of dissatisfaction than the alternative, which is usually higher electoral abstention. One might even stipulate that, in constituencies in which “none of the above” gained a relative majority, a special by-election should be held and, if that continued to be the case, no representative from that district would be elected.

3. Lotteries for electors

We have repeatedly stressed the need for improving voter turnout at all levels of electoral competition. Some of the above-mentioned reform proposals might have this as an indirect effect. For example, universal citizenship, by giving additional votes to families with children, might increase electoral participation among young citizens. Discretionary voting should make the act of voting more interesting and expressive of individual preferences, which might also appeal to previously alienated citizens. But we should still be concerned with providing direct and positive incentives for electoral participation. Compulsory voting has had such an effect in the past, but seems to be waning as individuals learn that public authorities are reluctant or incapable of sanctioning non-compliance. The ancient Greeks considered simply paying eligible citizens to spend a day listening to speeches in the Àgora, but in the contemporary world that seems unacceptably commercial in a political process that is already excessively impregnated with financial concerns.

So we propose a lottery – or, better, three lotteries – for voters. Each person who votes would receive one of three special lottery tickets: one ticket for first time voters; one for regular voters (for example those who have voted in all previous elections for which they were eligible or during the last three times); and one for all other voters. The winning numbers would be drawn at the same time that election results were announced and the names of the eventual winners would be publicised and fêted. The prizes should not be sums of money for private purchases, but portions of the public budget for distribution to state programmes or non-profit associations and movements in civil society. The winners would be given a period, say, a month, to decide what organisation or programme they would give their respective sums to, during which time they would receive diverse proposals from public and semi-public agents. Indeed, when publicised, the decisions that these randomly selected citizens made could have a significant impact on determining public policy priorities and/or on encouraging voluntary support for organisations in civil society.

4. Shared mandates

Normal practice in all existing democracies is for citizens to choose a deputy to represent them – either from a party list or in a single-member constituency. What if parties were required to nominate “pairs” of candidates for each position? One of the two would be the primus inter pares; the other would be his or her deputy. The first would receive a full salary; the second a half salary. Parties would be free to decide how these pairs should be balanced – by gender, age, religion or social origin – but the voter would have to choose both of them together. It would be understood that the first of the two would be “senior” in the sense that he or she could exercise the mandate for the full period and be singularly responsible for all of its obligations, or they could divide up the task according to time period or legislative function. Parties might wish to indicate beforehand what the division of labour would be in the forthcoming legislature – or they could simply leave it to the discretion of the pair once elected. The advantages of such an arrangement are multiple: (1) it should allow persons to participate actively in legislative politics while also pursuing their own careers; (2) it would encourage a parity in representation across gender, age or other sources of social discrimination; (3) it could provide a useful supplement of expertise for the legislative process as a whole; (4) it could serve as a device for gradually inserting young people into the competitive political process; and (5) it would ensure that a larger proportion of the population would share in the direct experience of governing.

5. Specialised elected councils

Modern European democracies are already surrounded by a multiplicity of advisory committees, “functional assemblies” and consultative councils – many of which are intended to provide guaranteed access for organisations of civil society to state agencies and decision-making bodies. The expertise and information that they provide are an important complement to the deliberations of legislative assemblies, and essential for coping with the increasing complexities of public policy. Their democratic status, however, has often been questioned since they provide privileged access to those interests and passions that are best organised and not necessarily to those that are most concerned with the public interest. Usually, the participants in these councils are selected either by politicians or civil servants according to some principle such as “the most representative association” or “the most insistent movement”.

We propose that governments at various levels – local, regional and national – consider holding periodic, specialised elections for membership in councils that provide them with advice on matters affecting such social groups as young people, the elderly, the unemployed, ethnic or religious minorities, people with disabilities, or foreign residents. The winners of these elections should be paid a modest sum for their participation. Obviously, the nature of these councils would vary with the national or sub-national context. In all likelihood, pre-existing associations and movements (and, in some cases, political parties) will be more successful in these contests than newly created ones, but their legitimacy as representatives will be enhanced by winning and they will be more inclined to develop broader programmes in order to attract votes from a wider public. Moreover, one could also envisage delegating control over specific budgetary assets to such councils. We believe that an especially compelling case can be made for the creation of a Council of Denizens and will make a specific proposal to that end, but the practice could be extended to cover other social groups – such as young people and the elderly – where appropriate conditions exist. Needless to say, this is a reform that would be easier both to implement and to monitor if initially applied at the local or municipal level and, only if successful there, might it be advisable to shift upwards to the regional or national level.

6. Democracy kiosks

One of the universal complaints one hears about contemporary democracies is that they are “remote”. Their operations are so complex and take place through the intercession of so many layers of decision making and policy implementation that the ordinary citizen feels incapable of reaching those responsible – even when he or she is sufficiently motivated to do so. Moreover, the sheer volume of information that governments put out has increased to such a degree that no one can be expected to keep up unless they make an extraordinary effort.

What if democratic governments – through co-operation between all levels, up to and including the European – were to create a comprehensive system of public kiosks in visible and accessible places in every urban quarter, town and village? Whether standing alone or placed inside sites such as local government offices, public libraries or even police stations, they could serve as distribution points for official publications, allow citizens to make routine transactions such as paying fees/taxes or notarising documents, provide free Internet access for receiving and sending messages from/to public agencies and offer personalised, face-to-face advice from local functionaries about laws and regulations. Eventually, if and when the polity moved towards electronic voting (see No. 28 below), these kiosks could help to fill the “digital divide” by providing dedicated electronic access for those without home or office computers, as well as instruction for its use. In order not to unfairly burden local governments with this additional expense and to ensure an even distribution across the national territory, this system should be funded from central government revenue. The expense could even be amortised over time by a corresponding reduction in the cost of conducting elections, sending official notices and responding to mailed or telephoned inquiries.

7. Citizenship mentors

A “citizenship mentor” programme could be an effective way to introduce migrants to the culture of the receiving society, as well as to acquaint “native” citizens with foreign cultures. The mentors would be volunteers, for example students, who would take on tasks such as assisting migrants to register into the health-care system, participate in the activities of various civic associations, and who would explain to them the basics of the existing political system, such as its political rights, voting procedures, registering to vote. They could also be “conscripts” from the civic service, proposed in No.10. The mentors and migrants should meet periodically, if possible, during the first six months after entry into the receiving country. Mentors would have previously received formal training in multicultural awareness and civic participation through standardised programmes. A common e-book should be made available in all member states of the Council of Europe with a complete listing of online resources for the use of training staff and mentors. Each Citizenship Mentor Centre would supplement this with specific information according to local, regional or national needs. The Council of Europe could serve as a regional co-ordinator of these experiences and diffuse information on those that have proven most promising. In order to encourage both citizens and migrants to participate voluntarily in this program, non-monetary compensation could be offered to them in the form of free tickets to cultural or sporting events or vouchers to be spent for additional schooling or language courses. Alternatively, where the use of volunteers or conscripts relieved local administrative staff from tasks with respect to migrants, they should be paid a modest (minimum) hourly wage. NGOs in some countries already provide analogous forms of mentorship as well as cultural mediators and they could be subsidised for extending and systematising these practices which could be institutionalised and improved through international co-operation.

8. Council of Denizens

Every political unit in the European Union that has more than a pre-designated proportion (say, 10%) of its total population consisting of “denizens” – legally resident citizens from non-EU member states – should create a council for their political representation. This should be a forum for regular deliberation among denizens and for periodic exchanges of opinion with existing councils composed of citizens at the municipal, regional or national levels. Denizens should also be free to invite politicians, academics and policy practitioners to their meetings, as well as to engage in a broader dialogue with the public on whatever matters they choose to place on their agenda. The size, competencies, and resources of this council would vary according to the social and legal context of the unit.

Representatives to this council should be chosen in a special election (but, ideally, one coincident with the normal citizen election at this level) by competition among political parties (presumably, in the proportional representation system, with closed lists of nominees). These parties could consist either of “denizen” sections of pre-existing citizen-based parties or of parties specifically created for these elections. Each candidate should be identified by name, profession and nationality and, where possible, information should be provided about the programme of the party that has nominated him or her. The parties specifically created for these elections may be formed of “national” lists (for example, Albanians, Chinese, Senegalese, Ukrainians), of “continental” lists (for example, Africans, Latin Americans, South Asians), of “religious” lists (such as Muslims, Confucians, Protestants) or of “cosmopolitan” lists that cut across these categories.

Such a competitive political process within the denizen community would avoid the need for setting specific quotas and would not certify publicly (and, therefore, reify) any specific institution (association, movement or party) or identity (nation, region or religion). It would be up to the denizens themselves to establish parties according to their own perception of common interest or identity – and the competitive process would determine which of these are entitled to representation on the Council of Denizens. Ideally, the “aggregative dynamics” of the electoral process would tend to reward those parties that represent broader categories of interest or identity and, in so doing, contribute to the formation of cross-cutting affiliations and alliances.

The competencies of the Council of Denizens should vary according to national legislation and constitutional provisions, but at a minimum, it would have the right to be consulted on all matters relevant to the interests of denizens resident in that polity. At a maximum, it could be accorded a veto power with regard to all decisions affecting the vital interests of denizens as such. In between, the council could play an important “mediating” role on such issues as the conditions for expelling undocumented and illegally resident foreigners and for legalising the status of such persons. In other words, it could function as a sort of “popular court” composed of “denizen peers” for handling such contentious issues on a case-by-case basis. Also, the council could be given a formal role in assessing and/or approving public funding for associations that provide services directly and specifically to denizens as well as to illegally resident aliens.

Its resources should also vary from polity to polity, presumably according to its size and competencies. One possible idea that might make for greater fiscal responsibility would be to fund the activities of the council and any subsidies or grants that it might approve from an ear-marked quota of taxes paid by denizens in a particular unit. For example, one-third of the income taxes or of the estimated VAT paid by denizens could be allocated for such purposes. Councils should have an independent source of revenue that is not contingent upon the budget of the polity as a whole or upon the whims of whatever coalition of citizens currently forms its government.

Given the present distribution of denizens in member states, it should be presumed that such a reform would begin at the municipal level in those cities with the highest proportional concentration of legally resident foreigners. If, as expected, these councils prove to be useful in resolving (even in pre-empting) conflicts between citizens and non-citizens and to be capable of stimulating the active participation of denizens, then, these inevitably dispersed local experiments could lead to their replication at the provincial, national and even supranational levels. Why not, eventually, an European Union Council of Denizens?

9. Voting rights for denizens

Some national states, cantons and municipalities have successfully introduced voting rights for denizens. This practice should be encouraged and improved. In particular, measures to make registration and subsequent access to voting (and hence participation) easier for long-term foreign residents should be introduced. Normally states and municipalities grant voting rights after a fixed number of years of residence in a country (this normally varies between two and eight years). A proposal could be that denizens who participate in programmes of citizen mentorship (see No. 8) or demonstrate a proficiency in civic education, constitutional matters and political history of the receiving country could be rewarded by gaining access to the vote after a shorter period of residence.

10. Civic service

European countries have been gradually phasing out their systems of military conscription. Many of them have provisions for an alternative civic service that has been increasing used by conscientious objectors and has become an important source of supplementary support for organisations in civil society. Not only would the abolition of compulsory military service deprive them of this support, but there are also other good “democratic” reasons why an alternative civic service would be a desirable replacement. It would provide a common experience for all young people regardless of social distinctions (class, gender, religion, region and so forth) in the larger national community. It would introduce them to the value of working in political and community organisations and offer a unique period of exposure to civic practice and democratic equality. Needless to say, it would quickly become a major source of support for the organisations of civil society involved in the production and distribution of public goods.

Such a service would be compulsory for all citizens and all denizens (who have lived in the country for more than three years) between the ages of 17 and 23. It would last for a short period, to be followed by the possibility of a voluntary extension. Exceptions could be permitted for health- or family-related reasons, but the obligation should be as general and non-discriminatory as possible. The experience should, however, be as flexible and accommodating to individual needs as possible. To accomplish this, it should be divided into three stages, one compulsory and the other two voluntary.

Stage 1 (compulsory). At a time of their choice between the ages of 17 and 23, all citizens would be required to spend four months fulfilling their civic service. The first month would be dedicated to general civic education and would be provided by a dispersed set of recognised institutions: secondary schools, professional institutes, universities, NGOs and other non-profit organisations or firms that would bid for competitive contracts and be paid accordingly from public funds. During the subsequent three months, the “civic draftees” would be assigned to work in organisations of civil society or agencies of public service such as fire brigades, hospitals, homes for the aged, local governments and so forth. During this entire four-month period, the draftees would be paid the same modest salary (say, the minimum wage if it exists) to cover their living expenses (food and housing).

Stage 2 (optional). After this short compulsory period, those who chose to do so could extend their commitment for a further year in the same or another organisation. In addition to the modest salary, they would become entitled to vouchers that could be used only for educational purposes (tuition, fees, housing or other expenses) during a subsequent three year period. These vouchers could be spent at a time of their convenience during the following ten years.

Stage 3 (optional and dependent upon matching funds from eligible organisations). Those who wish and had already completed stages 1 and 2 could opt for spending another twelve months in civic service, provided that an organisation in civil society or agency of public service would agree to pay them a salary equivalent to the modest one they would continue to receive from public sources. This extra year would then entitle them to an additional two years of educational vouchers.

11. Education for political participation

Traditionally, proponents of democracy have complained that citizens were inadequately educated for bearing the complex responsibilities required of them when voting for representatives or participating directly in decision making. On these grounds, the electoral franchise was often competence-based, meaning that it was denied to those without formal education or those who were illiterate. Ironically, in contemporary democracies, the level of general education has risen so much that some observers complain that citizens have become excessively critical and demanding of their politicians. No one seems to believe that the population has ever received the “correct” political education. People tend to have a limited view of “political” objects, to reduce political affairs to “politicking”, not to be aware of policies, programmes, ideas, principles, issues, debates on issues and ways of facing current problems and, consequently, to have a pejorative vision of politics.

Everyone agrees that today’s democracies need better politically informed and, therefore, better politically educated citizens. But how can this be accomplished and, more specifically, what should be the role of public policy in this effort? Most “real existing” programmes for civic education focus on a description of formal institutions and a recitation of normative principles. They are far from providing the knowledge and skills demanded by a more politically aware citizenry. Indeed, much of this effort can be counter-productive – helping to breed cynicism when the observed practices fail to match up to the exalted ideals.

We believe that a better approach would be to educate citizens for actual participation in politics – as it exists rather than as it is supposed to exist. This would require that students at various moments during their education be placed in direct contact with representatives and rulers acting in their usual governing roles. The emphasis should be placed on “learning by experience”, rather than “learning from manuals”. The proposal for a civic service (No. 10) based on internships in government and civil society institutions is one such effort aimed at those who are finishing secondary school. Younger students might be assigned to serve for a day or two as “assistants” to local politicians or activists in parties, associations or movements. One could even imagine a competition about politics and history among pupils in different schools with the winners spending a limited period of time as surrogate “ministers” or “state secretaries” in the regional or even national government. If millions of Europeans watch the Euro-Song Fest and participate in its ingenious voting system, why not try the same thing for a Euro-Politics Fest? Two or three controversial topics of major importance for Europe as a whole could be selected in advance for debate and students could prepare “briefs” arguing different points of view and proposing different solutions. “National champions” could then face each other off on live television.

12. Guardians to watch the guardians

The purpose of establishing “guardian” agencies and boards is precisely to remove them from “politics” and to insure that their specialised expertise can be brought to bear to solve problems without the “costly” interference of partisan disputes. Unfortunately, this also serves to disconnect them from the circuits of democratic accountability. Elected representatives may have some say in their initial nomination, but little control beyond erratic legislative hearings once they are in office. We propose that all guardian institutions – central banks, general staffs of the military, regulatory agencies for a wide range of purposes, all sorts of autonomous boards and managerial public commissions – be recognised as such and each be assigned a “guardian” chosen by the parliamentary committee most relevant in their field of activity. This person would be a member of the permanent staff, paid by and responsible only to the parliament, and would have the same right to information and presence as a member of the directorate of the guardian institution. His or her primary responsibility would be to report regularly on the performance of the respective agency or board and to evaluate its compatibility with democratic principles – that is to say, a sort of permanent whistleblower with privileged access to internal documents and discussions. This should serve to strengthen the general role of parliament within the usual system of inter-agency checks and balances.

A potentially significant secondary responsibility would be to serve as a specialised ombudsperson vis-à-vis the public at large and its exchanges with the guardian institution to which he or she is attached. Virtually all European democracies have general ombudspersons responsible for hearing and acting on citizens' complaints. They have become an important resource in changing and adapting policy making to the needs of the citizens. So much so that they are frequently over-burdened with a variety of complaints and, hence, suffer from a lengthy investigation procedure. Having a number of specialised ombudspersons covering the guardian institutions would not only diminish the burden on general ombudspersons, but it would also bring more specialised knowledge to bear that should make it easier to discriminate between serious and trivial cases.

13. Special guardians for media guardians

No one questions that the media – press, radio, television and, increasingly, Internet – play a highly significant role in determining the quality of democracy in Europe. They provide most of the information that the public uses to make judgments about candidates and policies; they tend to set the agenda for political debates; they can have an important direct impact upon voter behaviour. And yet, neither democratic theory nor practice knows how to treat the media so that it does not systematically distort the outcome of political competition. Repeatedly, it is said that the net effect of the press, radio, television and Internet should be “neutral”, “balanced” and “fair” – but how to ensure that this is so?

By and large, the situation in Europe is relatively pluralistic “at the base” – compared, for example, to that of the United States. Different forms of ownership – public as well as private – prevail and there are usually prohibitions on too great a concentration of market share in the hands of a single firm or consortium. Television stations are required as a condition for their licensing to provide free time to the candidates of competing parties during electoral campaigns. Moreover, many countries have set up independent regulatory agencies (“guardians”) to verify that radio and television stations cover political events and personalities in an equitable fashion. They monitor to ensure that the time and attention devoted to government and opposition is not disproportionate. Some of them are even empowered to deliver mandatory injunctions and to impose sanctions on those that violate regulations. These are practices that should be encouraged in all member states of the Council of Europe.

But, who regulates the regulators? Who ensures that they actually do their job and are not “captured” by those they are supposed to regulate? It is one thing to legislate that media treatment is supposed to be “fair and equitable”, quite another to prevent the natural tendency to seek to expand market share by simplifying, personalising, and dramatising the “spectacular” aspects of political events. Such regulatory agencies may have the authority to levy fines or even impose injunctions during campaigns, but do they dare to do so when the winning party can subsequently dismiss their officials or grant themselves an amnesty?

We are convinced not only that the competencies of these agencies should be strengthened so that they can intervene rapidly and effectively – up to and including the power to revoke the broadcasting licenses of egregious offenders – but also that their officials should be both encouraged to act and protected against retaliation. This means insulating them from governmental and partisan reprisals. Not only should they be appointed for long terms with the approval of a parliamentary supermajority, but also their subsequent renewal of contract or removal from office should be the exclusive responsibility of an especially convoked independent commission. How its members should be picked is a matter best left in the hands of each national polity, but we would favour random selection from members of the professional associations involved in the different media – where these exist and have a significant density of membership.

14. Freedom of information

In this Green Paper, we have refrained from advocating new rights and concentrated on innovative reforms in rules and institutions. However, there is one basic right that seems to be particularly crucial in order to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of today’s rapidly changing world. The increase in complexity due to global and regional interdependences and the formidable pace of technological change have made information an increasingly valuable commodity and a fundamental instrument of power. The present distribution of it, however, is asymmetric and becoming more so. Agencies of government and corporations in the private economy have much more access to it than do individual citizens or organisations in civil society. Moreover, they also have the capability to gather even more information in a surreptitious fashion on these same individuals and organisations.

This, in turn, affects the practice of democracy since the ability to receive and process information is a major determinant of choice – individual and collective. Without equal access to information, the citizen can neither form his or her preferences accurately nor decide reliably what course of action to take. Citizens do not know which policies to accept or reject; they cannot reasonably choose which ruler to support or oppose. Negotiation and, even more, deliberation about the public use of legitimate authority are subject to manipulation by those who have privileged access to information. It seems likely that the rising tide of distrust in democratic institutions is due, in part, to the culture of secrecy that tends to surround agents of public and private power and the suspicion that these agents are distorting information for their own purposes.

A formal declaration of equal freedom of information should be a component of all democracies in Europe – whether as part of a constitutional specification of basic rights or as an independent legislative act.

In principle, this freedom should be two-sided: first, it should guarantee equal access by all citizens to sources of information needed to form their preferences and make their choices; and second, it should obligate all rulers to disclose the information that they have used to make their decisions and that they have gathered on citizens. There are obviously cases in which such transparency and full disclosure would endanger the security of the polity, but the onus of proof for withholding information would always be with its “owner”. For example, data on public opinion, however anonymously gathered and privately funded, should be made available to all citizens during electoral campaigns – except during the concluding days of the campaign when all polling should be prohibited.

In practice, however, the effective implementation of this freedom would require that training be widely available (and subsidised for those that cannot afford it) in the technical skills needed to process information; that the equipment necessary for capturing and using information be widely distributed to all social groups or accessible through public kiosks; and that the costs of access be kept as low as possible or subsidised with public funds.

15. A “yellow card” provision for legislatures

Representative bodies at the municipal, local and regional levels should be granted the power to issue “yellow cards” – explicit warning notices – when they judge that their formal rights or informal prerogatives are being infringed upon by drafts of prospective legislation coming from a higher level body. This would allow them to question such infringements without taking the more legalistic (and lengthy and uncertain) step of appealing to a higher court for a judgment on the matter after a decision has been made. Moreover, since in many cases the legal status of such an action is unclear, it would emphasise the strictly “political” nature of many of these inter-level infringements. When given a yellow card, the alleged offending body would have to suspend further action on its initiative until it had provided additional justifications for its action, including a formal declaration of subsidiarity, that is why its objectives could not be better accomplished at a lower level of aggregation.

An article in the draft EU Constitution exemplifies this mechanism. It would give national parliaments a direct role in monitoring the application of the subsidiarity principle. If and when the Commission fails to consult widely, does not provide sufficient reasons for acting or has not demonstrated that a given proposal respects subsidiarity, it would have to furnish the “yellow-carding” assemblies with a satisfactory justification before proceeding further.

While the prospective EU mechanism is limited in scope, there is no reason that we can see why it could not be extended to cover all future drafts of legislation affecting inter-level relations, or why it should not be put into practice at all sub-national levels as well as at the supranational one. Indeed, this early warning device could be of very considerable value in avoiding unnecessary litigation within national governments and preserving the political component of democratic politics from excessive juridification.

One could even imagine extending this “yellow carding” mechanism in the inverse direction. Higher-level legislative bodies could be given the right to issue explicit warnings when they believe that lower level ones are violating previous commitments, whether formal or informal, constitutional or prudential.

16. Incompatibility of mandates

The clarity of relations between levels of government – local, regional, national and supranational – is enhanced by prohibiting politicians from either simultaneously holding or even competing for (and subsequently renouncing) elected offices at more than one level. Whatever the benefits may be for specific political parties from having “notables” placed on multiple lists or eventually serving at multiple levels, the deficits in terms of unambiguous relations with constituents and accountability in the exercise of authority are much greater. In line with the previous proposal, we are convinced that it is desirable to draw clear lines of competencies, personal as well as institutional, between democratic institutions. Citizens should be able to calculate before casting their vote exactly who will represent them in each specific legislative body and they should not have to rely on complex, multi-faceted chains of personal influence in order to accomplish their political purposes. Moreover, the fact that almost inevitably politicians running in multiple constituencies in the same election subsequently renounce their winning positions in those at lower levels tends to undermine the status and legitimacy of these local and regional assemblies or executive agencies..1

17. Framework legislation

Where multiple levels of decision making exist and where each of these levels has a substantial degree of autonomy within its own sphere, it is nonetheless common that more encompassing governments – national and supranational – pass laws that require the active compliance of less encompassing ones. Moreover, as noted above, there has tended to be a drift in this direction due to the alleged necessity for comprehensive and unified responses to such challenges as globalisation and insecurity. Historically, it was the imperative of national defence or offence in inter-state war that justified most of this impetus towards centralisation. Today, a similar situation seems to be arising from “the War on Terrorism”.

Whatever the ostensible justification for centralised action, the principle of subsidiarity would require that any such legislation be of a “framework” nature, that is to respect as much as possible the existing autonomy of lower-level units and leave to them the choice of methods and solutions adapted to their specific circumstances. At most, the central decision should fix the generic goals to be accomplished and the general guidelines for action, leaving the rest of the implementation process to existing local and regional authorities.

Especially destructive of more dispersed forms of state authority are so-called “unfunded mandates”, or requirements by central governments not only that lower level governments conform to invariant norms, but also that they fund this compliance themselves without any downward transfer of financial support. No democracy based on multi-level government should tolerate such mandates and, as far as is possible and compatible with the general objective of providing uniform access to public goods, each level should be empowered to raise sufficient “own” resources to produce the public goods that its citizens and their representatives deem adequate.

18. Participatory budgeting by citizens

Much of the activity under this heading has been inspired by reforms introduced at the municipal level in Porto Alegre, Brazil over thirteen years ago. In addition to spreading to other cities in that country and elsewhere in Latin America, there have been several experiments with “participatory budgeting” in European cities. The formula differs from site to site but usually involves the earmarking of some proportion of the municipal budget for distribution according to categories of service provision and, especially, projects of investment to be decided by an assembly of citizens at the level of specific neighbourhoods. In some cases, these decentralised assemblies in turn select representatives that meet at the level of the municipality in order to determine (along with regularly elected city councillors) the priorities of the budget as a whole. In other words, this process of transparent and open deliberation among the most directly affected citizens supplements, but does not replace, the usual channels of representative democracy.

We are convinced that this is a democratic reform worth pursuing within Europe, although a good deal of evaluation of the many experiments that have already been conducted will be necessary before settling on the details of its implementation. In the case of Porto Alegre, it was introduced by a specific party, O Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), and it has been advocated exclusively by political forces on the Left ever since. We, however, see no reason why such a reform would not be supported by a broader partisan range in Europe since its outcome could just as well be conservative as progressive – depending on the preferences of the neighbourhood community involved. Moreover, there are evident problems with the actual participation of citizens in such a reform – such as their skewedness with regard to education and social status, their manipulation by organised interests, their affiliation to existing political parties – and there are serious questions about how such a micro-level application might fit within Europe’s “multi-layered polity”. Clearly, it is a measure that is very sensitive to the scale at which it is conducted and cannot simply be aggregated upwards to the regional, national or supranational level.

Which leads us to advocate a related but more “generic” reform that could be applied at virtually all levels of government. What if citizens could determine, presumably by referendum or initiative, their preferred distribution of total public expenditures according to level of government? Suppose that they were offered at some point in time the choice of how much they wished to be spent proportionately and within a certain range of variation by municipal, local, regional and national governments. Persistent deviation above or below this distribution would eventually have to be explicitly authorised by these same citizens. Obviously, some flexibility would have to built in for situations of natural disaster or emergencies in national insecurity, but in an accountable fashion citizens would determine grosso modo how increases or decreases in general revenue should be allocated according to a pre-established formula.

Note that this would not give them the direct authority to determine exactly how these funds would be spent on competing services or investment projects – that is a job for politicians much more familiar with the details of tradeoffs and relative needs. Nor would it fix the specific means for generating revenue or the degree of transfers from one taxation source to another – just the overall distribution of expenditure by level of government.

Something similar already exists with regard to the European Union where a ceiling has been place by its member governments on the proportion of total VAT collection in Europe that it can spend in a given year. Admittedly, this is set by national governments and not their respective citizenries, but why not practise almost the same thing with regard to their own national territorial constituencies?

19. A Citizens’ Assembly

This assembly would be composed of a randomly selected sample of the entire age-eligible citizenry, that is both registered and unregistered voters. Its number (initially) should be twice that of the present lower chamber of the legislature. The selection of “Citizens’ Deputies” (CDs) would be in accordance with the existing system of constituencies in the lower house, that is two CDs would be drawn randomly from each district – if a single-member district – or double the number of existing deputies – if a multi-member district. The Citizens’ Assembly should be considered as a “committee of the whole” empowered by the normally elected assembly to assist it with legislative review – in other words, it should be regarded as a measure to strengthen not weaken the legitimacy of the regular parliament.

Each Citizens’ Deputy would be paid one-half the salary of a deputy in the lower house for the two- or three-month period of his or her civic service. Each CD would be assigned a legislative assistant who would be responsible for ensuring that he or she receives all relevant documentation, respond to requests for further information and help in their interactions with the public.

This assembly would meet once a year for one month at a site to be determined, perhaps even in the lower house of the national parliament. Its unique purpose would be to review and vote on one or at most two bills passed by the regular parliament during the previous year for which at least one-third of the deputies in the lower house have explicitly requested a stay of implementation.

Future Citizens’ Deputies should be chosen two months prior to the meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly. During this period, they would be provided with the necessary documentation, including the transcript of previous parliamentary debates on the relevant bills and contemporary press commentaries. They could also request any additional information within the limits of national security. Needless to say, arrangements would have to be made to ensure that CDs would be relieved from their regular occupations during their period of civic service and guarantee that they could return to their pre-existing jobs without penalty.

The names of those chosen to be future Citizens’ Deputies would be made public and citizens encouraged to contact them – through their respective legislative assistants. Adequate means for communication, for example online computers, photocopying facilities, franking privileges and so forth, should be put at the disposition of all CDs and special arrangements, such as setting-up websites, should be made to make it easy to contact them and protect their privacy.

Citizens’ Deputies actually participating in the assembly should be chosen at the end of an initial two month period by coin-toss between the two CDs selected for each single member district or between pairs of CDs from multi-member districts. In the event of illness or other impediment, the “substitute” would become the deputy. Here, the intent is to make it more difficult for CDs to be influenced or even suborned by external influences, since the identity of those participating in the assembly would not be known until the last minute.

The Citizens’ Assembly after due deliberation would vote on each of the bills submitted to it. Only those drafts receiving a simple majority of the votes would be passed. No legislation rejected by the assembly could become the law of the land. If the regular legislature failed to assign any bills to the assembly, it would nevertheless meet to review the year’s production of laws and issue a statement on their quality by majority vote with minorities expressing their dissent if necessary.

In polities that already have referendum or initiative provisions, the Citizen Assembly could replace such arrangements – at lower cost and greater visibility, and with more opportunity for deliberation.

20. Variable thresholds for election

We discussed the currently fashionable proposal for democratic reform in the United States concerning “term limits” for elected representative and concluded that they were not desirable. Contemporary politics requires professional expertise that can be acquired only over several terms. Otherwise, amateur and pro tempore representatives could be too easily manipulated by well-staffed and powerful interests. Moreover, Europe’s more disciplined political parties might be undermined when large numbers of their candidates with no long-term future as elected representatives might be tempted to vote in erratic or idiosyncratic ways.

What might be appealing, however, as a counterweight to “the iron law of oligarchy” (under which the longer a politician remains in office, the more he or she tends to accumulate incumbency resources and becomes difficult to remove from office by electoral means) would be a system of moving thresholds. Incumbents, after serving two terms, would still be eligible for re-election, but would have to win a higher proportion of votes in order to stay in office. For example, if in the last election he or she had won by 55%, in the next one the threshold would be raised by 2.5%, or to 57.5% – and by the same increasing margin for each successive one. The same system could be applied in proportional representation systems, either to the incumbent candidate’s placement on the list or to the number of votes required to meet the quota. Citizens satisfied with their representatives could continue to re-elect them for as long as they wished – but only provided that more and more of them expressed this satisfaction in successive elections.

21. Intra-party democracy

All students of democracy agree that it is desirable that political parties themselves be democratic in their internal operation. Most of these same students would also agree that such a condition cannot be “legislated” – least of all, by some set of binding national or supranational norms. By their very nature parties represent “parts of the polity and society” and, therefore, should have the autonomy to determine who they accept as members and how they govern themselves. In their competition with each other, they may be compelled to widen their respective programmes in order to appeal to voters outside their core membership and they may even be obliged to hold some sort of internal simulacre of a democratic process, but they often show little enthusiasm for recruiting new members or for holding genuinely competitive internal elections if this threatens to upset established patterns of leadership. They may also show little or no interest in increasing subsequent electoral turnout if the additional voters do not manifestly benefit their candidates.

So, parties are a necessary component of liberal democracy as currently prasticed, but they can also be an impediment to its legitimacy and, certainly, to the reform of its institutions and practices. Nowhere can the response to this paradox be seen more clearly than in the persistent decline in public trust in them. As we have seen, the answer cannot lie in obliging them to behave more democratically; it can only lie in rewarding them for doing so. One could imagine granting free access to the media for publicising their internal democratic processes – elections, hearings, public dialogues, and so forth – but this presumes that citizens wish to listen, watch or read about such events.

An alternative might be to set aside a proportion of the public funds budgeted for supporting political parties for distribution to those parties that hold competitive internal elections for the nomination of candidates or establish regular forums for the discussion of issues with the general public. As for rewarding them for encouraging voter participation, this could be helped by the system of vouchers for party funding (No. 23), since only those who actually vote could distribute these vouchers.

22. Vouchers for funding organisations in civil society

All liberal democracies in which membership and financial support of associations and movements is voluntary suffer from systematic under- and over-representation. Putting it bluntly, those small, compact and privileged groups that have less need for collective representation get the most of it. Those large, diffuse and underprivileged groups that most need the public goods that only a strong and well-funded collective action can ensure get much less of it. As the German-American political scientist, E. E. Schattschneider, put it, “the trouble with the interest group chorus is that it sings in an upper-class accent” and Europe is no exception – regardless of level or location.

Our proposal is to provide an alternative source of funding for civil society organisations. This could be accomplished in a democratic manner through three, closely related, measures: first, the establishment of a semi-public status for interest associations and social movements; second, the financing of these associations through compulsory contributions; and third, the distribution of these funds by means of citizen vouchers.

This reform in the way civil society organisations are funded would deliberately avoid the specification by political authorities of any fixed category of representation based on class, status, sector, profession or cause – unlike contemporary chamber or corporatist systems. It would leave the task of determining the organisations to be funded to the competition for vouchers from individual citizens. In many cases, the reform would be costless – provided governments could be persuaded to eliminate all existing subsidies distributed by administrative agencies and allow citizens to choose which associations and movements deserve financial support.

The central purpose behind the development of a semi-public status for associations and movements is to encourage them to become better “citizens”, that is to treat each other on the basis of greater equality and mutual respect, and to dedicate greater attention to the interests and passions of the public as a whole. This would involve nothing less that an attempt to establish a charter of rights and obligations for civil society organisations. It would be naive to suppose that merely imposing certain rules would eo ipso make them into more “fact-regarding, other-regarding and future-regarding” actors. The legislation of most national democracies is strewn with unsuccessful attempts to regulate lobbies and pressure groups. What is distinctive about this approach is the coupling of respect for certain conditions of self-organisation and management with quite concrete incentives for support and a competitive process of allocation.

This reform recommendation rests squarely on the need to develop a new method for financing civil society that is independent of the ability and willingness of individual citizens to pay – which means extracting resources involuntarily from all those who ultimately will benefit. The contribution should be collected equally from all persons resident in a given territory. Persons who wished could also give voluntarily to various causes, but this would not exempt them from the general “representative donation”. Note that, by tolerating such a freedom, small and compact “privileged groups” would still be more likely to attract disproportionate resources, since their members would continue to have greater incentives to give voluntarily in addition to the general levy. Nevertheless, given the large numbers involved, a very considerable harmonisation of resources across interest categories and passionate causes would be likely.

The most feasible manner for doing this would be to attach this obligation (and the voucher system) to the annual filing of the personal income tax – at least in those countries where virtually all adult residents are required to file, if not to pay such taxes. Indeed, in the interest of equity, those who are tax exempt because of low revenue, should be exempted from the representation levy, but they would still be empowered to distribute vouchers which would count towards determining which specific associations received money from the common fund. What is important is to retain the low level of individual payments – say, €100 per person – in order not to scare away potential supporters of the reform, but to make the aggregate level of resources provided sufficient to compensate for persistent inequalities between interests. It would also be essential to convince the public that such an arrangement would constitute an important extension of democratic rights – analogous to the previous extension of the franchise.

What pulls this entire scheme together is the mechanism of vouchers. These specially designated, non-transferable units of account could be assigned only to those interest associations and social movements with a semi-public status, in proportions chosen by individual citizens. The only “cost” involved in spending them would be the individual's time and effort in getting acquainted with alternative recipients, plus the time needed to check off boxes or fill in blanks.

Vouchers have many attractive features that would benefit the domain of specialised representation.. They would permit a relatively free expression of the multiplicity of each citizen's preferences – rather than confine he or she to a single-party list or a single candidate as do most territorially-based voting systems. They would allow for an easy resolution of the “intensity problem” that has long plagued democratic theory, since their proportional distribution by individuals across associations should reflect how strongly the citizenry “really” feels about various interests and passions. They equalise the amount paid by each person, thereby, severing the decision to contribute from the unequal command over resources that unavoidably stems from on the unequal distribution of property and wealth. They offer no rational motive for waste or corruption since they cannot provide a direct or tangible benefit to the donor and can be spent only by certified associations for designated public purposes. Moreover, they should provide a very important incentive for reflecting on the nature of one's interests, thereby, encouraging the opening-up of a new public space. Since they would be repeated over time, the distribution of these vouchers would present a virtually unique opportunity to evaluate the consequences of one's past choices.

Vouchers would, therefore, become a powerful mechanism for enforcing the accountability of existing associations and movements since if the behaviour of their leaders differs too remarkably from the preferences of those who spent their vouchers on them, citizens could presumably transfer their vouchers elsewhere. They would also make it relatively easy to bring forth previously latent groups unable to make it over the initial organisational threshold, instead of using vouchers to switch back and forth among existing rival conceptions of one’s interests. And finally, vouchers offer a means of extending the principle of citizenship and the competitive core of democracy in a way that neither makes immediate and strong demands on individuals, nor directly threatens the entrenched position of elites.

Borrowing (but inverting) a slogan from an earlier struggle for democracy, one could say that what we are advocating is “No Representation Without Taxation!”

23. Vouchers for financing political parties

Financing political parties is a delicate issue. In most polities, political parties tend to be chronically underfinanced, and, therefore, they seek to raise money in dubious, non-transparent ways that risk being perceived as corrupt. The accusation of corruption hovering over their finances reinforces the negative popular image of political parties, creating a vicious circle that makes normal citizens less likely to contribute voluntarily to their support, and undermines not only the prestige of democratic institutions and politicians but also public trust in them. As a consequence, political parties do not feel they have enough popular legitimacy to ask for more financial support from the public budget. This keeps them in a perpetual grey zone, on the borderline between legal and illegal means of financing their activities.

One solution for this problem could be a system of vouchers for the specific purpose of distributing public funds to parties. When people vote in general elections, they would also be able to vote a “second time”, that is to vote on the distribution of a fixed sum to the party or parties of their choice. In order not to risk too great an initial impact, only 50% of the total public funding for parties would be distributed in this fashion. The other 50% would be determined by the proportional results in the previous elections – as tends to be the practice today. Eventually, this pre-allocation could be abolished and all such funds would be distributed directly by citizens – regardless of how well the respective parties performed in past elections. What is important, however, is that the aggregate sum to be distributed should be higher than is presently the case and sufficient enough not to be overwhelmed by the efforts of individual parties to extract resources from private sources. Presumably, if citizens are convinced that they personally determine which party will be rewarded with their tax money, they will be willing to devote more resources to that purpose.

It should be noted that this second vote would be independent of their vote for political parties or their candidates in that election. Citizens could decide to split their voucher across different parties or allocate them to a minor party that had no immediate prospect of winning. In the more extreme version of this reform measure, voters could even choose to reward “none of the above”, that is withhold their financial support to all the existing parties. Such funds would accumulate from election to election and groups of citizens with a minimum number of signatures distributed across a range of constituencies would become eligible for seed money to fund new parties.

We would expect that in most cases the voter would support his or her preferred party, both electorally and financially. Nevertheless, we can also assume that a significant number would divide their vote. First, they would support a party that they prefer most in the electoral race, but secondly they might invest in another party that they would like to see gain more influence in the future. This would enhance the strategic calculations of voters (and might make it more fun to vote) and it should also help minor parties to organise in a more competitive fashion. Another desirable effect of such a reform would be to encourage all parties, major as well as minor, to campaign vigorously for a higher turnout since only those vouchers distributed by actual voters would generate income for them.

24. Referendums and initiatives

The overall trend towards greater direct participation of citizens in decision-making processes at all levels should be given support by the Council of Europe. Both the governmental referendum and the popular initiative are devices that uniquely allow citizens to hold their representatives and rulers accountable. They also tend to increase citizens’ interest and expertise in political issues and, therefore, complement other reform efforts aimed at improving levels of civic competence in politics. Finally, such devices should enhance the democratic legitimacy of political decisions.

We recommend that institutions of direct democracy be added to the set of representative democratic mechanisms on all levels of government, including the supranational or European level, with the local level offering the most appropriate starting point for experimentation and evaluation processes in those polities that are not already using them. The European Union should be encouraged to go further than the right to petition proposed in its draft Constitution and introduce both a European initiative and a European referendum. In political systems where such mechanisms are still unknown, priority should be given to the requirement to approve constitutional amendments and ratify major international treaties of major importance by the citizenry as a whole. While there is no ideal type of direct democratic institution, we recommend that both referendums and initiatives be binding rather than consultative. This guarantees the electorate that its decisions will be implemented and this, in turn, may encourage a higher voter turnout. We advise against the use of quorums on the grounds that collective decisions by the citizenry should produce policy effects independently of turnout levels. In federal systems, as well as the European Union, we suggest a Swiss-style design based on a double-majority – one based on numerical criterion and the other based on negotiative criterion that is sensitive to variation in the size of member units. Both the drafting and eventual approval of popular consultations should be subject to judicial review by national constitutional courts and, in the case of eventual EU referendums, by the European Court of Justice.

Similar to the Venice Commission’s Code of good practice in electoral matters, we recommend that the Council of Europe draft a handbook on referendums and initiatives. A code of good practice of this sort would be useful in both the conduct of popular consultations and their subsequent evaluation.

25. Electronic support for candidates and parliaments (“smart voting”)

We recommend that the Council of Europe actively support efforts at developing electronic support systems which would offer citizens – in conjunction with eventual online voting or e-voting (see below) – new sources of information designed to improve the quality, if not also the quantity, of their participation in elections at all levels of government. At the core of this recommendation lies a set of technological arrangements that would allow citizens to match their political opinions with those of specific parties and candidates during electoral campaigns, as well as eventually to engage in e-deliberation with these very same parties and candidates.

These “smart voting” technologies already exist in some Council of Europe member states, although they are not in widespread use. They encourage all candidates to fill in an online questionnaire containing an extensive set of policy questions. Candidates would answer questions such as: “Are you in favour of licensing atomic energy plants?” by clicking on their preference (“very much in favour”, “rather in favour”, “rather against”, “very much against”, “neutral” or “undecided”). In addition, candidates would be able to give weight to their preference (“high importance”, “medium importance”, “unimportant”). The questionnaire would be designed by an official non-partisan commission that, after hearings with civil society organisations and experts from academia, would determine which questions to include and which format to use.

Citizens would then be able to fill in the same questionnaire online and at no cost, either in its full version or in a shorter one that takes up less time. They would instantly be provided with a relative measure of their preferences on specific issues of public concern compared to other citizens who filled out the questionnaires and the distribution of candidates’ answers. Virtually instantaneously, they could discover which candidates and parties have preferences similar to their own. They could also choose to fill in the questionnaire anonymously or to register as “smart voters”, so their political profile could be stored not only for their personal future reference, but also made accessible to candidates and parties as an alternative to their reliance on public-opinion polling. This would be analogous to the personal customer profiles used in e-banking technologies and could even become an important source of knowledgeable interaction between representatives and citizens. Politicians or parties might even use the (voluntary) system of registration as a way of contacting or recruiting “sympathetic” citizens in the course of future elections.

After filing the citizen’s online questionnaire, the system would automatically match his or her preferences with data coming from all the candidates in order to produce a “virtual substantive ballot”, ranking them according to the proportional overlap between the candidates’ and the citizen’s answers. Obviously, the more questions answered by the citizens, the more detailed and accurate their profiles will be. Clicking on candidates’ names would also provide the citizen with detailed information about their party affiliation, political profile, previous voting record (if incumbent), links to their personal website, e-mail and other contact information. Candidates could provide smart-voting citizens with detailed justifications for their choice on each item of the questionnaire in order to explain why tradeoffs and compromises were made.

The virtual ballot filled out by the “smart voter” server could even be printed out for use at the polling station, especially in those cases of open-list systems that allow the voter to register a preference for individual candidates. In the future, should e-voting become widespread, an electronic version of the “virtual substantive ballot” could be filed directly over the Internet.

26. Electronic monitoring and online deliberation systems

Between elections, electronic online platforms should be set up to monitor and map roll-call votes of all representative bodies. By accessing this platform, citizens would be able to continually evaluate the political behaviour of their representatives during their mandate. For every roll-call vote in Parliament, every vote would be immediately fed into an online database that would generate an objective profile of the voting choices of all MPs. The same should be done for all lower-level representative bodies. Voters could therefore obtain detailed information on their representatives’ political activity easily and at virtually no cost.

A similar system already exists in many member states, but it is provided by organisations in their respective civil societies that generate scales for rating the extent to which voting by representatives conforms to standards of environmentalism, feminism, liberalism, and so forth. These can be quite useful, but they can also be subject to manipulation since the citizen-consumer may not be familiar with the criteria embedded in scoring votes on individual bills. The reform we are proposing makes this transparent and allows the individual the freedom of making up his or her own set of priorities and weights.

Citizens could also be enabled to simulate online the votes they might have cast on past bills, as if they themselves were elected representatives. The aim of this would be to produce a virtual profile that would fit the citizen’s individual combination of interests and passions. One’s own simulated, “virtual” voting profile could then be matched with the profiles generated by “real” representatives, providing voters with yet another possibility to evaluate incumbent candidates. The matching-technique would be analogous to that used by the “smart voting” technology discussed above in Proposal No. 25. Candidates running for the first time in a local, provincial or national election should be invited to fill out one of these virtual profiles and enabled to give detailed arguments for their real or virtual choices on specific measures.

In addition, online tools could be developed and made widely available that would encourage political deliberation among citizens – and not just between them and their representatives. Of course, so-called chat rooms already exist in very large numbers for a seemingly infinite variety of issues. The contribution of publicly promoted tools of this sort would largely be to systematize and publicise their existence, connect them to representatives at all levels and, perhaps through “democracy kiosks”, encourage and equalise access to such forums of discussion. There are also a number of delicate political and ethical issues involved in monitoring such sites. Here, again, is an opportunity for the Council of Europe to investigate “good practice” among its member states and publicise relevant standards.

27. Postal and electronic voting

In a recent report, the Venice Commission concluded that both remote and electronic voting are, in principle, compatible with the standards of democracy in Europe. We believe that the Council of Europe should encourage the introduction of remote voting – be it postal or electronic or both – in elections and referendums. Until the means for remote voting are universally accepted, they should be introduced as supplementary channels for political participation. In general, we would recommend that postal voting be introduced before e-voting, and that for an interim period alternative means of site and non-site voting be made available to all citizens. Experience has shown that, once offered the choice, non-site voting quickly becomes the norm, eventually making it easier to switch to a policy of exclusive non-site voting.

Remote voting procedures enhance two elements of the voting process. First, they are more convenient and second, they give the citizen more time to make his or her choice. There is usually a period of one or several weeks during which voters can cast their ballot. Studies show that these two factors tend to lead to higher turnout rates and do not seem to advantage or disadvantage specific groups of voters.

In analogy to the exercise of political rights in Europe, postal voting can be designed according to three basic types. The first, multiple request, requires voters to request formally the ballot forms with which to vote by mail for each election/popular consultation. Once received, they return the ballot by mail as well. This type of postal voting seems best suited for electoral systems that require voter registration for each election. In the second type, single request, voters need only request that their voting ballot be sent to them once. Citizens will thereafter – for the rest of their lifetime – automatically receive ballots and, therefore, the possibility to vote by mail. This type of “single request postal voting” is best suited to an electoral system where voters are required to register only once for all elections. Finally, the third type, fully automatic, refers to systems where the electoral roll is produced from census and/or housing registration without any need for prior action by citizens. In this case, all relevant voting materials are sent automatically to all voters who can then cast their ballots by mail.

Studies have shown that the fully automatic version of postal voting produces has the most impact on improving electoral participation. As with voter registration, the more automatic and open the system, the more convenient voting becomes, and greater is the expected increase in turnout.

In the case of remote electronic voting over the Internet, the procedure could be embedded in an extensive “virtual” election site containing modules that would allow citizens to deliberate among themselves before casting their ballots, to access political information provided by parties and candidates but also by associations and movements in civil society, to evaluate the congruence between their own political stances and the choices of the candidates and incumbent representatives (see Nos. 25 and 26), as well as to vote at a convenient moment from home, office or “democracy kiosk”. Not only should this increase the quantity of voting, but also the quality of the voters. The additional information and time to assimilate and evaluate it should contribute to a more reasoned exercise of the franchise. There are still many issues to be resolved before citizens (and politicians) will feel secure in using this technology, but experimentation is currently underway in many member states – mainly, at the local level. The Council of Europe is an apposite international institution for evaluating the alternatives involved and the lessons learned, and to produce a code of good practice with regard to such electronic voting procedures.

28. An agent for the promotion of democratic reform

The Council of Europe has established itself as the most significant agency for monitoring the practice of human rights in Europe and already plays a significant role in “certifying” the existence of democracy in those countries that have recently emerged from autocracy. Its Venice Commission has carved out a creative role in supplying disinterested legal and constitutional expertise to newly founded democracies in Central and Eastern Europe.

We propose that the Council of Europe should extend its role into the systematic improvement of the quality of democracy in both its actual and its prospective member states. This would involve the creation of a permanent body composed – as is the group of experts who have written this paper – of both academics from several disciplines and politicians with experience at different levels of government and in civil society who would monitor the nature and pace of reforms, evaluate their consequences and, where appropriate, advocate their extension to other governments or countries. This should be done periodically, say, every five years, and make extensive use of data gathered by a regular reporting system in which the member states would be asked to provide information on the reforms that they have undertaken, as well as on the normal performance of their democratic institutions– much as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has done in the field of economic performance. It would not be asked to issue “score cards” comparing the quality of democracy across member states, so much as to identify emerging “good practices” and promote their diffusion to other polities. This requires an initial conceptual framework – such as is provided by this Green Paper – that would identify the key institutional dimensions of contemporary liberal democracy and the standards for evaluating its performance. Needless to say, as we have noted repeatedly, these standards are not uniform throughout the region but vary over a considerable (but not infinite) range.

The mandate of this group of experts should include the possibility of reporting when the quality of democracy in a member state has significantly declined and descended below the European minimum. In which case, it could issue an “orange card”, more serious than a yellow one in the sense that it would recommend that the Council of Europe consider suspending the membership of that country until improvements are effected. Needless to say, the final decision to suspend (that is the “red card”) would remain with the members of the Council.


1 . A recent directive of the European Union has declared that the mandates in national parliaments and the European Parliament are incompatible, but it does not prohibit candidates from running in both contests and subsequently renouncing one of the mandates.