In the original democracy in ancient Athens, Greece, most public officials were not elected. Instead, they were selected by random lottery from among the citizenry, to serve as legislators, jurors and in other roles. Critics of democracy since the Greek philosopher Plato have argued that “the people are neither sufficiently informed nor reflective enough to rule.”*
Yet for almost three decades, professor James S. Fishkin, now at Stanford University, has repeatedly demonstrated the opposite—how smart the public can be—through a process called a Deliberative Poll™. The process starts with a conventional telephone poll, asking several questions, after which respondents are invited to join, in person, a weekend of presentations and deliberations about the issues identified in the poll. At the close of the weekend, they answer the poll questions a second time. Fishkin reports that participants change their choices from the first poll almost seventy percent of the time—a surprising result, because people usually are more resistant to change.
However, when people feel their decisions are important, they take their task very seriously. Attendees each get a briefing book with a balanced presentation of the issues. In a large group, they hear from experts of varied points of view and ask questions. In small groups, they have discussions and clarify key points. They have personal conversations and become friendly with people whose views are different than their own. Having convened more than 100 Deliberative Polls in 28 countries on a wide range of issues, Fishkin and his colleagues have conclusively proven that—under the right circumstances—ordinary people can make thoughtful and informed decisions on complex issues; providing a convincing rationale for making democracy more democratic.
The most radical possibility for improving democracy suggested by Fishkin’s work would be the replacement of elected professional legislators with randomly selected citizens—a process called sortition or lottocracy. That’s how the ancient city of Athens governed itself for two centuries. While such a radical change is not likely to happen anytime soon, the use of the Deliberative Polling process, in and of itself, has the potential to provide true representation and significantly influence public policy.
Fishkin quoted a former lobbyist’s comment that most members of Congress “would like to do the right thing, if only they can get away with it.” Pressure from interest groups and donors often adversely influences their decisions. However, if Deliberative Poll decisions are reported prominently in the media, it gives the legislators “cover to do the right thing,” because of its authenticity. No government body or official is more truly representative of the public than the mini-legislature of a few hundred members randomly selected for the deliberation. Unlike actual legislators, the participants of the Deliberative Poll have no need to worry about re-election, so they are free to think for themselves. The outcomes can be quite unexpected.
In 1996, Fishkin “was contacted by some electric companies in Texas, who faced a new requirement that they consult local residents as part of their planning. Were they going to use coal, natural gas, or renewable energy (wind or solar power)? Would they try to reduce the need for more power through conservation?”
Fishkin helped the electric companies answer those questions, through eight Deliberative Polls conducted with a random sample of each company’s customers. Much to everyone’s surprise, consumers in Texas—“the gas and oil state”—were willing to pay extra on their utility bill for renewable energy and conservation. From the initial poll to the poll conducted after deliberation, citizens’ support for paying extra money for renewable energy jumped from 52 to 84 percent, and for conservation jumped from 43 to 73 percent.
The Texas electric power industry and the Texas government were deeply influenced by the remarkable results of this Deliberative Poll, and acted accordingly. In 1996, when the poll was conducted, the state of Texas was 49th of the 50 United States in renewable energy production. Today, Texas is number one.
Power to the people.
*Fishkin, James S. (March/April 2006) The Nation in a Room. Boston Review.