A more deliberate democracy

Voting in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday. More collaborative forms of democracy are taking shape in Oregon and elsewhere. CHARLIE NEIBERGALL / Associated Press
Voting in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday. More collaborative forms of democracy are taking shape in Oregon and elsewhere. CHARLIE NEIBERGALL / Associated Press
Posted: November 08, 2012

As the presidential campaign lurched toward its conclusion, one couldn't help but despair. Debates were littered with falsehoods. The media batted at gaffes like distracted cats. And the candidates postured and re-postured in their efforts to win a slim majority.

All this detracted from the more profound purpose of voting, which should give the public an opportunity to study and weigh in on our most pressing issues. Even if it was a democratic election, it was not a deliberative one.

The idea of deliberating together has a long history that resonates with the best aspirations of our nation's founders and the historical practice of self-government, from the ancient Greeks to the Iroquois. Some modern innovations provide glimpses of how we might reinvigorate the deliberative tradition.

One of the most promising contemporary institutions is the Oregon Citizens' Initiative Review, which became a permanent part of the state's electoral process under bipartisan legislation passed last year. The review convenes a demographically balanced, random sample of 24 citizens for weeklong deliberations on every state ballot measure.

The citizen panelists interrogate advocates, opponents, and experts on each initiative. They then examine the evidence and arguments to produce a one-page analysis, which appears in the official pamphlet the secretary of state mails to all registered Oregon voters.

Research my colleagues and I conducted in 2010 showed that the reviews had a significant impact on the wider electorate, helping voters sort through complex ballot questions. Consider, for example, two reviews held this year.

Panelists studying a proposed change in the state's tax laws discovered that it could not guarantee the increased education funding it promised. In a less reflective process, such a "gotcha" finding might have led the measure to be rejected. But a majority of this sober citizen panel endorsed the measure anyway, on the grounds that it appeared superior to the status quo. The measure passed on Tuesday.

Another panel tackled a controversial proposal to allow non-tribal casinos in the state. The polished arguments of the initiative's proponents collapsed under the panel's weeklong scrutiny, and the panelists ended up with doubts about its benefits and concerns about adverse effects on tribal revenues. This is likely why casino proponents suspended their campaign before Election Day, when the initiative was rejected.

The idea behind the Oregon Citizens' Initiative Review is simple: When we give citizens a chance to deliberate and inform one another in a structured way, it usually yields well-reasoned and compassionate judgments. Giving power to the people in a way that focuses on deliberation can lend legitimacy to government and its decisions. This is the logic behind our jury system, but it can extend well beyond the courthouse.

Far from an anomaly, Oregon is part of a global renaissance in deliberation. In British Columbia, Canada, the parliament empowered citizens to draft new election laws that were put to a province-wide vote. Californians have drafted a ballot initiative using large-scale deliberative polling. Iceland and Ireland are finding roles for citizens in constitutional conventions. And participatory budgeting, in which the public conceives, establishes, and assesses major public projects, has spread from Latin America to crop up in Chicago, New York, and California.

While our national politics remain mired in gridlock, examples like these show that officials and citizens across the globe have found ways of harnessing the power of deliberation. By talking and working together, it's possible to not merely judge victors, but to render meaningful judgments.


John Gastil is director of the Penn State Democracy Institute, a professor and the head of the university's communication arts and sciences department, and a coeditor of "Democracy in Motion."

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