Deliberative Polling as a Means of Making Better Voters

Following Asad’s post on voting, it seems appropriate to mention experiments in deliberative polling. The experiments grow out of an old concern with the secret ballot. J.S. Mill worried that the secret ballot would lead people to vote on the basis of their narrow interests. When the vote is open, we have to justify to others our electoral preferences. Reason giving would lead to a deliberative discusssion, and people’s choices would be more reasonable as a result. Of course the flip side is that an open ballot could easily lead to coerced votes.

But there may be answers found in the experiments in deliberative polling. This article offers a brief overview.

“Bruce Ackerman [at Yale] and James Fishkin [at Stanford these days] propose ‘Deliberation Day’. Instead of standing alone, voting day would be preceded by a national holiday to be held one week before major national elections. Voters would be called together in neighborhood meetings to discuss the central issues of the campaigns. . . Their proposal draws on Fishkin’s work on the “deliberative poll,” in which respondents don’t simply answer questions out of the blue, but come together in small groups to discuss issues.

One of the more dramatic uses of deliberative polling occurred in Australia just before the national referendum on whether it should become a republic . . .Several hundred randomly chosen Australian voters gathered for a weekend to confer with experts and politicians and among themselves. Initially most could not correctly answer basic questions about their constitution or the referendum. By the end of the weekend, they got 80 to 90 percent of the questions right. And support for the referendum shifted from 50 percent to 73 percent.”

This summary page of Fishkin’s Center for Deliberative Democracy has the results of a dozen such experiments, and plugs from people as diverse as Bill Archer and Al Gore. And the results are surprising.

And here’s a paper on the differences between conventional polling and deliberative polling. But of greater interest may be Fishkin’s paper, “Virtual Democratic Possibilities: Prospects for Internet Democracy“.