A new kind of vote

The issue: unengaged, uninformed citizens. The remedy: deliberative polling.

On Saturday, October 29, a week-long community summit on campus will culminate in Carnegie Mellon?s first deliberative poll through the Southwestern Pennsylvania Program for Deliberative Democracy. A random but representative sampling of community members from Allegheny County will discuss and respond to questions on local, regional, or national issues. Through this poll, the Program for Deliberative Democracy (a partnership between Carnegie Mellon and the Carnegie Library) hopes to raise the level of campus-wide discussions on important issues and stress the merits of campus diversity.

Deliberative polling (as headed by the Center for Deliberative Polling) was first presented by Center director James S. Fishkin in the late 1980s, spurred by his perception of citizens? failure to make informed decisions on important issues.

In a 1996 interview with Joseph Straw of the New Haven Register, Fishkin said that ?public opinion polls show what people think when they don?t think.?

The idea of deliberative polling was not actually implemented until the early 1990s in Great Britain. The first deliberative poll in the U.S. took place at the University of Texas during the 1996 election, with issues ranging from abortion to taxes. Two hundred and forty individuals participated. General issues of polls that have since been conducted include education (conducted by the Nike Foundation and Oregon Public Broadcasting in 1999) and economic relations between New Haven city and suburbs (conducted by Yale in 2002).

For Carnegie Mellon?s poll, the discussion issues will include health care costs, services for the uninsured, health care for the elderly, better health care practices, and the impact of both the reduction of federal Medicaid funds and advances in treatment. Topics in a single polling can range from human rights to foreign policy to domestic issues.

This is not the first deliberative poll that Pittsburgh has hosted. In 2004, the city was one of ten nationwide to take part in a deliberative poll titled ?America?s Role in the World,? a discussion and poll on country and worldwide issues, including national security and global trade.

The process is simple: Individuals from a random sample answer questions about certain issues. They then gather together in small groups for moderated discussion. Individuals are also given the opportunity to question political leaders. Following the discussion and questioning, members are asked to answer the same questions as before.

But does it actually affect peoples? opinions? Yes, according to the statistical data provided by the Center for Deliberative Polling.

In a 2003 overview of the deliberative poll held in Philadelphia, those in favor of increased foreign aid spending increased from 20 percent to 53 percent over the course of the poll. Results for higher gas mileage changed from 65 percent to 81 percent. Many other changes were noted, including the priority of attention given to weapons of mass destruction.

Technology has certainly enhanced the development of deliberative polls by permitting ease of discussion and quick access to results. ?Listening to the City? is a program that, in July 2002, gave 800 individuals the two-week opportunity to discuss online the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan.
Additionally, Global Voices is a company whose program allows people to gather in ?21st Century Town Meetings? to discuss issues. Individuals? opinions are recorded on laptops and shared with political leaders.

?There is a lot of social science where people have argued ? not on any very good basis ? that we don?t need a more informed public,? Fishkin said in an interview with the University of Texas press. ?I?m quite happy to make the argument that we do, and to be able to demonstrate what difference it would make.?