Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Political Science


Dr. Laura Stephenson


Are Citizens’ Assemblies useful tools for reforming democratic institutions and addressing the democratic deficit? Evaluating the utility of using mini-publics to deliberate issues like electoral reform based only on their record of success does not recommend this approach. But this sort of assessment is weakened by a lacuna in the study of Citizens’ Assemblies: we do not know whether such deliberative bodies, thanks to their inherent high levels of democratic participation, might have added democracy-enhancing value over and above traditional elite-centric reforms. This dissertation establishes a theoretical model for evaluating whether a particular path to electoral reform has independent effects on the quality of democracy and on the democratic deficit, regardless of whether the proposed change is implemented. Elite-centric and more deliberative processes are evaluated based on their input and output legitimacy (Scharpf 1997, 1999) to determine whether high-input-legitimacy processes, such as Citizens’ Assemblies or similar efforts, have a positive effect on the quality of democracy, even in the absence of changed electoral laws. Twelve case studies at the national and subnational levels within the last thirty years are evaluated using a detailed and deeply historical treatment to determine whether the enhanced input legitimacy of a deliberative process has independent effects that make the Citizens’ Assembly template worth using to tackle the democratic deficit. The overall conclusion of the study is that Citizens’ Assemblies can fail to have an independent effect on the quality of democracy if the process is abandoned or subverted by elites, and proposed reforms require elite support through to the end in order to have a positive effect. Therefore, Citizens’ Assemblies can be worthwhile as tools to reform democracy if they receive proper elite support from start to finish.