This weekend, California Forward will co-sponsor an unprecedented effort in the state to bring voters together and delve into the issues plaguing our state in the first ever California Deliberative Poll.
Stanford professor James Fishkin conceived of the deliberative poll idea and has found great success distilling ideas and engaging the electorate in other parts of the world. In today’s Zocalo Public Square, he discusses why a deliberative poll is so critical to California’s future.
California has long led the nation in trying to involve the public directly in the making of laws – this year marks the 100th anniversary of California’s initiative process. Ever since that signature Progressive Era reform, the state has been the heartland of the nation’s political experimentation.
The voter initiative was a bold experiment that sought to give people a sense of authorship over the rules governing society, while diluting the power of special interests. As the state has grown and politics have been transformed by new communication technologies, those laudable aspirations increasingly seem to be just that – aspirations, rather than reality. Initiatives draw people into the lawmaking process, yes, but as an “audience democracy” of competing sound bites, campaign ads and now Facebook postings and Twitter feeds. Voters participate, but often exercising about as much deliberation as they might when casting a vote on American Idol. Special interests, meanwhile, have not been banished from the process, but instead play an increasingly prominent role, setting the agenda for what the public votes on, and financing the expensive media campaigns underlying each initiative.
Can the initiative process be reformed or re-invigorated? The core problem with audience democracy is not the competence of the public; it is that the public assumes the role of an audience, a vast one of millions. Political economists have a term for the problem – “rational ignorance.” If I have one vote among millions, why should I pay a lot of attention to the details of competing policy proposals, when my individual vote or opinion will not make much difference and when I have many other urgent demands on my time?
But what if people were effectively motivated to spend the time and effort to become informed and to consider the issues under good conditions? How might their opinions change? What if we could take a representative cross-section of citizens and ask them to really deliberate on a set of policy challenges, enlisting citizens in the legislative arena the way we routinely do so in judicial proceedings through juries?
Deliberative Polling could be the answer, a means towards meeting the Progressive yearning to involve a broad swath of the citizenry in the law-making process, while also deepening their engagement. That’s why, starting tomorrow, eight non-profit groups (including my center at Stanford University and the New America Foundation) will be conducting the first What’s Next California? statewide “Deliberative Poll” to chart a different path to possible structural reforms in the state.
What is a Deliberative Poll? In a conventional poll, each person in a random sample is asked to respond, and that is mostly the end of the matter. In a Deliberative Poll, the participants are brought together after the initial survey and divided into small groups where their voice matters. Instead of one voice in millions, they have one voice in a small group of 12 or 15 and one voice in 300 or 400 in the total sample brought together for the weekend. Their views are covered in the media and likely televised. They have every reason to think their voice matters. In projects around the world, we have found that when individuals are assured their opinion carries weight, they do a great job of dealing with difficult questions.
Those who believe ordinary voters are incompetent are wrong; voters are simply inattentive, disengaged and/or distracted, often for good reasons. What would happen if a good microcosm of the people deliberated and then provided an input for everyone else? If they set an agenda for dealing with the difficult structural reforms needed in California? We will see in What’s Next California?
Read the full article here.
James Fishkin is director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University and author of When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation.
Read other takes on Deliberative Polling.