Deliberative democracy and electoral-system reform

South Koreans liked proportional representation. Americans were “flummoxed.”

Can a deliberative mini-public change minds on electoral systems? Recent efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere have tried to do just that. (“Try” may be too strong because the goal, I think, is to put options before everyday people and let them reach their own conclusions.) The latest originated in Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

I am not optimistic. I think parties/partisanship shape political culture to an extent that constrains the deliberative approach.

Here is some background. I am not an expert on deliberative democracy/mini-publics. However, with respect to my research area, the trend originated with two citizens’ assemblies in Canada. One recommended single transferable vote (STV) for British Columbia (BC) in 2004. Another recommended mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) for Ontario in 2006. Both proposals went to referendum (twice in BC’s case), but neither resulted in adoption. Yet these citizens assemblies’ presumably changed enough minds to result in proposals.

More background. The point of a citizens’ assembly is to wrest control of some agenda from the hands of incumbent politicians/party leaders. At least that is how I understand it in the context of my research area. In that area, incumbents are assumed to oppose all change. “Turkeys voting for Christmas” is a mantra in the electoral-system change literature. Americanists might be more likely to write “Turkeys voting for Thanksgiving.”

Two countries’ experiences with DD inspired this post. James Traub recently reported on them in Democracy Journal. (The editors ask good questions, as I learned last summer.) Here are the key quotations:

Earlier this year, the South Korean parliament, deadlocked on a series of electoral reforms, authorized a [deliberative] poll on the subject. South Korea elects members of parliament through both single-member districts and proportional representation. After hearing arguments on both sides, the participants proved vastly more favorable to proportional representation than they had been in pre-deliberation surveys.

Now for the United States:

As they talked their way through the proposals, the group gravitated toward those that seemed most likely to reduce polarization, like nonpartisan primaries. “Let’s just vote the human being,” Brian said. They were flummoxed by unfamiliar ideas like fusion voting, which allows a candidate to run on more than one ticket and make common cause with other parties, and proportional representation, in which voters choose multiple winners for large, multimember districts.

These excerpts suggest big difference between the countries’ respondents with respect to what I might call “pro-party” reform. More precisely, the countries’ respective mini-publics appear to differ on reforms that treat political parties as bargaining units. South Koreans liked proportional representation. Americans were “flummoxed.”

I am not surprised. One thing I wrestle with is whether certain reforms are impossible in the United States, full stop. That’s because ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat’ are fundamental to the way Americans understand politics and process (filter) political information. In turn, that leads (allows?) elites to shape the debate in certain ways. Here is part of what I wrote on the issue in More Parties or No Parties (p. 47).

Whether a reform is party-hostile or -hospitable depends on the composition of the reform coalition. It can comprise a single party, multiple parties working together, or a coalition that defies party lines (i.e., is cross-party). The pre-existing number of parties limits which of these are possible. In a two-party system, a cross-party coalition must be anti-party, unless it is a polarizing one. Consider recent data on public views of reform [in the U.S. and elsewhere]…

Thanks to Gary Morehead (on X) for arriving at the same conclusion using different information.