This website catalogs, explains and critiques various ways to do democracy better.  We tend to think of democracy as a government where we vote for representatives that act on our behalf.  But researchers and citizens everywhere, through scholarship, technology, statistical techniques, and just plain original thinking, have opened up other, possibly better ways of practicing democracy.

When we look for the causes of our problems, we often blame either our elected representatives or the citizenry who voted them into office.  The reform projects in this webpage question that assumption, the best and most realistic solution to many of our problems lies in improving the process used to choose our representatives and the process that representatives use to arrive at decisions.  

The main idea behind most of these proposals is that average citizens need to be more involved in the governmental decision-making.  Moreover, most of these proposals fall under the umbrella of deliberative democracy, which is basically the idea that quality deliberation can and should play a larger role in government.  While not all such proposals are equal, proponents argue that such involvement by average citizens will improve the decisions that governments make, and participation itself will directly improve the communities and lives of citizens who participate.  Also, decisions made with citizen input will improve their actual and perceived legitimacy.  The democratic reform projects listed below aim for fair, efficient and reasonable decision making through fair, equitable and educational procedures.

Many of these proposals reach back in to the idea that average citizens can and should take part directly in decision-making.  This was cast aside in recent centuries in favor of the elected representative.  However, new processes have emerged which overcome the traditional pitfalls of direct citizen involvement in legislation and rule making. 

Citizen Juries

As the name indicates Citizen Juries draw inspiration from the jury in the western legal tradition.  A small group of citizens are selected at random from the adult population from the geographic area.  All adult citizens are equally likely to be selected for these bodies.  Whichever traits or characteristics one thinks are important in political representation will be proportionally represented in the random sample.  So, gender, race, ethnicity, geographic location, education level, etc. will, on average, be represented proportionally to their occurrence in the population.  The vast majority who are not selected for a particular panel will be represented in that there will be persons who have similar traits in the sample.

Once a Citizen Jury is formed they undergo a deliberative process on a delineated task.  This deliberative portion should consist of many things including presentations and testimony by experts, professional bureaucrats, and scientists when appropriate.  These experts would be involved in the process of disseminating information dialogue.  Structured debate and periods of reflection and reading are generally agreed upon as central.  Also, the use of neutral moderators can be of use in encouraging constructive dialogue.  One way to encourage deliberation would be to require a super-majority of two thirds or three fourths for a decision to be made.  Depending on the size of the body, we may not wish to require unanimity, but requiring a large super-majority will most likely foster a more deliberative process and provide greater legitimacy for outcomes. 

Specifying constraints and procedures for politically legitimate debate is notoriously problematic for many reasons.  This topic is taken up elsewhere on this site. In any case the deliberative portion should fulfill the requirements of fairness and sound decision-making. 

Depending on the funding level and the importance of the decision at hand, multiple panels may be held in series or parallel to ensure that the outcome reliably elicits the informed will of the citizenry.

Questions: Are moderators necessary? Or can the process be fruitful by using syntactic rules for discussion such as time limits, which can more easily be fairly enforced. 

Deliberation Day

Deliberation Day, 2004, Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin, Yale University Press

Deliberation Day is a proposal for a new national holiday where every citizen is invited to their polling place a week before the presidential election for deliberation and debate.  This process lasts one day.  The beginning of the day involves watching a prerecorded debate by the contenders.  Small groups then discuss and vote on questions to be submitted to local party leaders.  The small groups convene again and the local party leaders answer a set of questions chosen in the small group sessions.  Lunch is provided and each citizen gets $150 for attending.  If DD goes well, Fishkin and Ackerman propose DD's extension to the midterm elections as well.

Deliberation Day is meant to accomplish a few goals simultaneously.  Firstly, it is argued DD will influence policy.   The president, and other politicians will have to deal with a public that is more politically sophisticated.  The president and the major parities will need to consider that their policies will be subject to a higher level of debate and scrutiny than in the past.  Secondly, it will give a training and exposure opportunity for local politicians, since they will be answering questions in front of voters.  Thirdly, DD will have a ripple effect on the general population.  People will become more knowledgeable about the issues they discuss and will become more critical about politics in general.  Also, the face time with neighbors that citizen’s experience will lead to greater participation in public life and fruitful connections with community members.

Instant Runoff Voting (Single Transferable Vote)

IRV voting models multiple rounds of voting.  Voters mark a multiple candidates in order of preference.  When the votes are tallied, if there is no candidate who wins a majority of votes, the candidate with the lowest first choice votes is eliminated and those votes are redistributed according to the next choice on the vote.  The votes are tallied again and the process repeats until a candidate receives a majority of votes.

Planning Cells

Peter Dienel “The Planning Cell” 1978 (In German, I have not seen a translation).

This process developed by Peter Dienel has been used mainly in Germany and other parts of Europe since the early seventies.  The basic plan is 25 randomly chosen citizens who over four days arrive at a policy recommendation.

A random sample of 25 citizens is created and the group is broken up into groups of five.  Throughout the process these groups are rotated.  Cues of citizenship, consensus and cooperation are given prior to commencement of work.  Citizens are compensated for participation and support provided to caretakers.  The group works on a predetermined problem with input from a group of experts.
Two facilitators edit output of cell and handle the administrative details.

A Popular Branch of Government

Ethan Leib, Deliberative Democracy in America: A Proposal for a Popular Branch of Government

Ethan Leib proposes a popular branch of the federal government consisting of rotating samples of 525 citizens.  This group would be broken into groups of fifteen for deliberation. Appellate courts could submit questions to the popular branch.  Answers would have only recommending force.  There would be a system for putting legislative proposals before the popular branch.  The branch would go through a deliberative process and vote on the proposal.  Proposals that passed and passed through the other branches of government would become law.  Ethan Leib argues that, like jury duty, participation in this branch would be mandatory if chosen.