Crowdsourcing a constitution - do or don’t?
Updated: Aug 9
Sometimes even political science comes up with new ideas, then we move away from Hobbes and Rousseau and admit to ourselves that old and white does not always mean better. Adapting to the times holds possibilities and opportunities. It sometimes seems incredible that we are still building our societies and political systems on centuries-old traditions.
A novel way to renew and perhaps even spice up democracy is the crowdsourcing of constitutions. Constitutions are the foundation of democracies, usually standing above all other national laws. Constitutions lay down fundamental rights, duties and values of a society. "Crowdsourcing" is a method in which the generating of ideas or information is transferred to a large group of volunteers. By involving the public and thereby including a wide range of perspectives, alternatives and new solutions are often identified.
The idea behind a "crowdsourced constitution" is thus the actual implementation of the idea that "All state power emanates from the people" (Art. 20 para. 2 of the German constitution). People from the population are to gather basic values and ideas for a new constitution via various systems. It seems to be the most logical approach, but it is undisputed that in the past constitution writing was reserved for small and elite groups.
Iceland was the first country to attempt to rewrite its constitution via crowdsourcing. After the financial crisis in 2008, the country was marked by distrust in politics. In 2009, the endeavour started with a privately organised national assembly of 1500 citizens who set themselves the task of gathering basic values for Icelandic politics. This was followed in 2010 by a national assembly of 950 citizens organised by the government to gather basic values and ideas. A constitutional assembly of 25 citizens who were not active in politics was then supposed to work out a concrete draft of the constitution. However, the election of the constitutional assembly was annulled by the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the process could continue after the parliament appointed a constitutional council of 25 representatives.
A referendum concluded that the majority of the population was in favour of implementing the new constitution. To date, however, the constitution has not yet come into force, as certain parties have continuously opposed it. Whether the new Icelandic constitution will come into force in the future is still open, but the possibility exists.
Although the crowdsourced constitution was not successful in the case of Iceland, other countries were inspired. When Scotland's independence from the United Kingdom was voted on in 2014, the Scottish government published a document setting out Scotland's possible future. The government virtually promised that a new constitution would be drafted in the event of independence. For this process, "innovative and participatory approaches from other countries should be learnt", in which the broad public is involved. We now know that Scotland did not gain independence, but the document shows that there was a will to learn from Iceland's experience.
So far, these examples are not very encouraging, but when is such an extensive undertaking successful on the first try? That's right, rarely. But rest assured, there is one successful example!
In 2016, the mayor of Mexico City started the process of crowdsourcing a constitution for the city. Noteworthy are the alternative approaches used in this process. Due to the size and political system, other strategies were used to gather input from the public. In addition to an official constitutional assembly of 100 representatives (60 elected by the people, 40 appointed), one of the ways the people were involved was through a survey. The survey by the "Laboratório para la ciudad" collected responses from 26,000 citizens. In addition, they cooperated with the online platform change.org. Citizens could thus start petitions for ideas that they considered essential for the new constitution. A total of 357 petitions were uploaded, which together had 280,000 signatures. Petitions with 5,000 or more signatures were sent to the legal experts of the Constitutional Committee. With at least 10,000 signatures, the person who uploaded the petition was able to present the idea in person to the committee. In four cases, more than 50,000 signatures were collected and the initiators were given a personal appointment with the mayor. 14 of the 15 petitions were included in the final version of the constitution. In September 2018, the constitution was enacted.
It is time to break up old traditions and treat democracy as such. The above examples show that involving the general public in the constitution-making process is a serious possibility. A perfect system has not yet been found, yet the idea itself should get more attention in research and politics. That the process would need to be adapted to each country individually and ensure that participation is as inclusive and accessible as possible should not be a question. Numerous perspectives and ideas that are usually lost in conventional political processes would be given a stage here. It should also be in the interest of politicians to give the population the chance to actively engage in such a process. If not for moral reasons, then at least for strategic ones.