By Ted Wachtel
Are ordinary people competent to serve as legislators, given that so many voters seem to make their choices based on superficial knowledge and the influence of attack ads?
James Fishkin’s Deliberative Polling research brings people together in what might be described as “weekend legislative sessions,” and demonstrates how large groups of ordinary citizens reliably make thoughtful and informed decisions about complex issues, under the right conditions.
While it is unlikely that we will choose our legislatures by lottery anytime in the foreseeable future, greater use of Deliberative Polling can move governance toward true representation. Two stories illustrate the potential and the limitations of Deliberative Polling in developing public policy.
In 1996 in Texas—a leading gas and oil state—Fishkin was asked to organize a Deliberative Poll within eight rural electric districts, surveying a randomly selected sample of customers on their opinions about wind and solar power.
First polled by telephone, each respondent was invited to a gathering, in which they heard from speakers with varied contrasting views on alternative energy, and had the chance to ask questions. Then they met in small groups to have discussions.
In advance of the event, they were sent briefing books that gave them time to study a variety of perspectives, and at the end of the weekend, they were asked to vote again. What was remarkable was that participants—once they had a chance to study the issues—shifted their opinion in a way no one had anticipated: They favored paying higher rates for electricity if it comes from alternative energy. Their unexpected response so impacted public policy, that Texas has since gone from next-to-last among the fifty U.S. states to number one in wind power production.
On the other hand, a 2012 Deliberative Poll about nuclear energy in Japan was ignored when the political party that sponsored the poll lost the next election. This illustrates the limits of public opinion when professional politicians stay in control of the decision-making.
Having conducted more than 70 polls in more than 20 countries, Fishkin believes that Deliberative Polling would be a productive way to move beyond America’s polarized politics.
“It works best when you have hard choices,” Fishkin says. “Despite what you see and read, this is not a nation of extremists. “What you see on TV, and in most polling, is an impersonation of public opinion.
The actual public isn’t really like that, especially when it is given something more than sound bites and distorted political messaging. If you give people real choices and real consequences, they will make real decisions.”
Using Deliberative Polling to Break Legislative Impasse
Government officials often appoint commissions to make believe they are dealing with controversial issues. Usually the commission’s recommendations, no matter how expert its members, are ignored—for the very same political reasons that prevented the officials from having the courage to come to their own conclusions.
More and more, public officials are intimidated into paralysis by the polarization of politics, further skewed by the use of gerrymandering to manipulate electoral districts in favor of one political party.
A Deliberative Poll, if provided with adequate staff and funds and the necessary authority, could serve as a commission and provide a thoughtful method of breaking political impasse, without individual politicians having to make tough choices with high political risk.
Unlike a small group of appointed commissioners, a Deliberative Poll has the moral high ground, truly representing the citizenry more accurately than the legislature itself. A national parliament, Congress or state legislature struggling with a controversial matter could delegate its authority to a temporary legislature, randomly selected from the appropriate jurisdiction.
Although there may be legal constraints on giving a citizen’s assembly the last say, lawmakers might retain the right to a no-amendment, up-or-down vote on the poll recommendations, thereby limiting their political exposure to controversy. In a similar situation, a 2005 commission deciding on closing U.S. military bases only offered Congress the option of a “yes” or “no” vote on the commission’s proposed list.
Though not as meaningful as if it were a legislature with the final say, a televised Deliberative Poll would allow the public to see the “wisdom of crowds” in action; when the deliberation can be truly diverse, independent and decentralized, free from the constraints of party politics and the influence of money.