By Ted Wachtel
Texas is famous for its divisive politics. Moderates are seen by many as spineless. Texas populist Jim Hightower says that in his state, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”
So how is it possible that Texas—one of the original gas and oil states—is now the nation’s leader in renewable energy? How is possible that both conservatives and liberals support this development? What about the dead armadillos?
What transformed the usually partisan political battle between environmentalists and the energy industry was a “Deliberative Poll.™”
In 1996, eight Texas electric power companies asked James Fishkin, now director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, to survey their customers’ views on energy options, including renewable energy, energy conservation and the related costs.
The Deliberative Poll has remarkable credibility, because its participants are selected by lottery from the target population—in this case, making each deliberative group truly representative of the eight power companies’ customers.
So what is a deliberative poll?
It starts with a conventional telephone poll, asking a few hundred randomly selected people several questions. Next, the respondents are invited to join, in person, a weekend of presentations and deliberations about the issues identified in the poll. In advance of the weekend, each participant receives a non-partisan briefing book, which presents the pros and cons of each of the choices. At the close of the weekend, the participants respond to the poll questions a second time.
The results of the Texas energy poll shocked everyone.
Texans—from the gas and oil state, who drive more miles in more pickup trucks and SUVs than folks in any other state—were willing to pay extra money for renewable energy and for energy conservation. From the telephone poll to the final poll, customer willingness to pay extra money jumped 30 percent, to 84 percent for renewable energy and 73 percent for energy conservation.
Fishkin reports that after hearing speakers and deliberating with others, people change their choices from the first telephone poll almost seventy percent of the time; a surprising result, because people usually are more resistant to change.
The Texas electric power industry and the Texas government were deeply influenced by the unexpected results and acted accordingly. In 1996, when the poll was conducted, Texas was 49th of the 50 United States in renewable energy production. Today, Texas is number one.
The legitimacy of a Deliberative Poll relies heavily on the meticulous care that the pollsters take to reach agreement with all contending parties in preparing the briefing book. For example, for a Deliberative Poll in Australia, the pollsters did 19 versions of the briefing book, until all parties finally agreed that it was fair. All parties trust a process in which they have meaningful voice and when their concerns are acknowledged.
Even without formal authority, a Deliberative Poll can have considerable influence, because its membership is more truly representative of the citizenry than elected politicians.
Elected legislatures may also delegate their authority. The Irish legislature has twice created randomly selected citizen groups: In 2018, to draft a law defining an end to the Irish government’s ban on abortion; and in 2015, to extend equal rights to same-sex marriages. In both cases, the legislature said it would honor whatever the two representative groups decided, subject to a public referendum. Both issues were approved by the public, while politicians themselves didn’t have to face the political risks of making a controversial decision that might hurt them in the next election.
Power to the people.