Skip to main content

Why democracy doesn't always require a majority

With the recent referendum in BC on electoral reform, which resulted in not only a defeat at the polls but also an abysmal voter turnout at 42.6% of eligible votes, there have been some renewed calls for policy decisions to be reviewed by a random assortment of voters through something like a Citizens' Assembly. A citizen's assembly would be an alternative, or a complement, to a public vote on a matter of public policy such as electoral reform; rather than putting the matter directly to the public, a random group of citizens would be selected and convened to give their opinion.

Further, over the course of the referendum, other important questions were raised about the process itself: what's a sufficient voter turnout to inform a policy decision? Shouldn't the ballot include the specific details of the voting system being proposed?

All of these questions serve as an important reminder of why democracy entails much more than showing up at a poll booth to submit a vote. Arguably, with a response rate below a majority of eligible voters, the validity of the vote on the referendum could be called into question. But what is a sufficient participation rate for democratic decision-making? Are there times when a random selection of citizens should be convened to provide an opinion on a matter of public policy?

One thing is clear: citizen assemblies do not constitute representative samples of the population - they are not reflective of majority opinion. Which begs the question - from the standpoint of democratic legitimacy, when are they appropriate?

The short answer: when it's important to have individuals without a party affiliation or explicit political agenda research something in detail, give it thoughtful consideration, and develop informed solutions or policy proposals. In contrast, if you're looking for a definitive answer about a particular question, wanting to gauge opinion, and reinforce the democratic principle of 1 person = 1 vote, then you will want to strive for equal representation through a statistically representative sample.

Aitamurto, Galli, and Salminen (2014) contrast these two approaches in this wonderful table:

Their paper is a terrific outline of the key features of effective crowdsourcing efforts. To some extent, good crowd-sourcing compromises the principle of 1 person = 1 vote; you're looking for the best ideas from whoever has them, and participants self-select. This means the most interested individuals may be the ones participating, rather than a broad group of equally represented population groups.

So if you're looking for an idea that is new, innovative, and captures the best thinking - something like a citizen assembly or crowdsourced option might be best. However, if you have a particular policy proposal, and are looking for an authentic gauge of public support to make a final decision, be sure a representative sample factors in.

In the case of the BC referendum on electoral reform, perhaps it would have been preferable to have the 'crowd' come up with innovative and different possibilities for electoral reform, before taking a representative sample poll by way of a referendum.

Table 1 is from the research paper: Self - Selection in Crowdsourced Democracy: A Bug or a Feature? 2014: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284727527_Self-selection_In_Crowdsourced_Democracy_A_Bug_Or_A_Feature

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Including rational thought in decision-making: novel idea?

The post last week brought up the idea that we need to think about what concepts and ideas are put forward in the public realm. From pop music to sports to local community events, our approach to decision-making is influenced by commonly understood cultural practices. Meaningful democratic decision-making requires that we think about the practices, ideas, and values that percolate throughout society.
More specifically, when it comes to engaging a group of people to get together and go through a democratic decision-making process, practitioners need to think about how participants are being, or have been, educated. By definition, democratic decision-making is not limited to specialists. "Rule by the people" means everyone gets to participate in decision-making, even about issues where we are not experts.
This does not mean, however, that democratic decision-making should be approached from a place of ignorance. Robert Dahl emphasized the importance of enlightened understanding 

Running for office: no experience necessary

There are moments when I hear people question the qualifications and experience of those who are running for, or hold, positions in office. Shouldn't there be some minimum, established, standard or criteria for holding a public position of power? Some minimum level of education?

The short answer is no. If we start looking to impose minimum standards or benchmarks other than: 1) residency, 2) adulthood* we've missed the whole point of democracy, and a critical part of what democracy means. A fundamental democratic principle is equality of voice, or equality of voting. Every person has decision-making power. This principle is based on the concept that not a single one of us is more qualified, or has any right, to impose decision-making or power over others, any more than they also have a right to impose decision-making or power over us.

By contrast, in other spheres of life, we want trained experts to hold some degree of decision-making power. For example, Doctors should probabl…

The Problem with Voting

Voting at the polls is a cornerstone of democracy today. When we think about, and understand, democratic participation, we imagine casting some kind of vote for some kind of person or issue in some kind of election.

Unfortunately, a focus on voting narrows the possibilities for democratic participation, which is really all about shared decision-making. Don't get me wrong, voting is important. It took us about 2500 years to set up voting as an actual mechanism to make decisions, and even now it's certainly not a widespread practice. The right to vote is a contested aspiration in many corners of the world, and we should support the right of each and every person to an equal voice in community decision making.

However, an exclusive focus on voting carries a significant risk. The concept of democracy is an aspiration; an aspiration to share decision-making, and to enable each other, as equals, to participate in decision-making. Decision-making cannot always be achieved with a sin…