My roommate and I walk to the church that's our polling place. I nearly forgot to vote. If she hadn't come home to remind me, I would have forgotten, even though I'm a person of passionate political opinions. As we walk, I flip through the voter's guide. On the big issues and candidates, I know how I stand. But I'm new to Seattle, and toward the back of the book, I have no idea. She tells me what judges to confirm, who to support for the port authority and board of education. Alone in a tiny cubicle, I scratch in marks in a line of bubbles and then it's over. My duty as a citizen, done in five minutes. That's it? I think.
Voting is the bottom line of democracy. To many, voting is all that democracy is. And yet, by itself, casting a vote is fleeting and hollow, and in an odd way, lonely. It doesn't feel like an act of participation in a greater whole.
In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill worried that the secret ballot, then just emerging, would encourage voters to choose the politician who most pandered to their private interests, rather than voting on behalf of the public good. Mill's worry was trumped by the growing realization that voters could not vote freely if ballots weren't secret. Yet now, with polling and advertising honed to a science, politicians have the tools to pander exquisitely. Cynicism builds, voting rates decline, and some call this a good thing—who wants ill-informed voters choosing on the basis of the last ad they saw—or their roommates' directives? But what if we believe in democracy? How might we create citizen engagement in a shared public dialogue?
Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin propose “Deliberation Day.” Instead of standing alone, voting day would be preceded by a national holiday to be held one week before major national elections. Voters would be called together in neighborhood meetings to discuss the central issues of the campaigns. Each voter would be paid $150 for the day's work, on condition of actually voting the next week. All other work, except the most essential services, would be prohibited on that day.
Their proposal draws on Fishkin's work on the “deliberative poll,” in which respondents don't simply answer questions out of the blue, but come together in small groups to discuss issues. They are thrust into a situation where they must offer reasons for their opinions and listen to those of others, each having real voices in a real group. In some versions, experts are brought in for the group to question. Only after this process do they secretly fill out the poll. It turns out that the process matters; after discussion, those polled are much better informed. And their opinions change.
One of the more dramatic uses of deliberative polling occurred in Australia just before the national referendum on whether it should become a republic and have a president head of state rather than the Queen of England. Several hundred randomly chosen Australian voters gathered for a weekend to confer with experts and politicians and among themselves. Initially most could not correctly answer basic questions about their constitution or the referendum. By the end of the weekend, they got 80 to 90 percent of the questions right. And support for the referendum shifted from 50 percent to 73 percent.
Ackerman, a Yale Law School professor, and Fishkin, a professor of government at the University of Texas, say Deliberation Day could reshape the quality of campaigns, since politicians would know their messages would have to stand up to a full day of discussion. It would open the possibility for more complex ideas to enter campaigns, they argue.
“Deliberation Day aims to remind voters that voting is not an occasion for expressing consumer-like preferences, but a crucial moment in which they are confiding ultimate coercive power to representatives who will be speaking for them on matters that may determine the fate of billions of their fellow inhabitants of the planet Earth,” say Ackerman and Fishkin.