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Democratic vote or deliberative poll?

Matthias Benz
13 October 2007

The first Europe-wide deliberative poll - the “Tomorrow’s Europe” event at the European parliament in Brussels on 12-14 October 2007 - will be an interesting exercise. But one should not expect too much from it. In fact, the poll will fail to address two major problems underlying the European Union’s “democracy deficit”:

* It will not change politicians’ incentives to take citizens’ concerns into account

* It will reach only 400 out of the EU’s roughly 500 million citizens.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. It is to simply let all EU citizens vote on important EU matters, like the proposed “constitution” or “reform treaty”. This would have a double benefit:

* It would give politicians strong incentives to listen to citizens’ preferences

* It would make citizens better informed about the EU and its policies.

Citizens are often taken as rationally ignorant about political matters; certainly, this view is one of the substantial motivators of “deliberative polling”. But there are good reasons to believe that citizens’ information-level is not just “naturally” low. In fact, this greatly depends on the political institutions under which people live.

Matthias Benz is an economics editor at the Swiss daily newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Zurich and has published some fifteen articles in scientific journals, among them the Economic Journal, the Academy of Management Review, and Public Choice
Matthias Benz is responding to the opening article in openDemocracy’s “Democracy and deliberation” debate:
James S Fishkin, “Deliberative polling: distilling the crowd’s wisdom” (12 October 2007)

Consider, for example, the way that the Maastricht treaty (1992), which paved the way to economic and monetary union, was introduced in various European countries. In some states, like Denmark, citizens had the right to vote on it. In others, like Germany, no referendum took place. Danish politicians had to engage much more in explaining the treaty to the citizens than their German colleagues in order to convince them of its benefits or its flaws. This increased the supply of political information. But Danish citizens’ incentives to demand information were also greater: in the intense discussions before the referendum, they had an interest in “having a reasoned opinion”. Thus, it would be quite natural if Danish citizens were better informed about the Maastricht treaty than their German counterparts.

This is exactly what the data show. In a paper published in the journal Public Choice, Alois Stutzer and I systematically investigated how referenda in several European countries affected citizens’ information about the EU in the 1990s (for the relevant research, see Matthias Benz & Alois Stutzer, “Are Voters Better Informed When They Have a Larger Say in Politics: Evidence for the European Union and Switzerland”, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zurich, Working Paper No. 119 [November 2002]). Our results indicate that people in countries which had a referendum were “objectively” better informed about the EU (according to ten questions about the EU in the 1996 Eurobarometer) as well as feeling “subjectively” better informed about the EU after a referendum (see Eurobarometer, 1992-97).

As a second empirical test, we also looked at voter information in Switzerland, where the extent of citizens’ political-participation rights differs substantially among the twenty-six Swiss cantons. Again, we found that citizens living in more direct democratic jurisdictions are objectively better informed about politics.

The graph (Figure 1) shows that the extent of political-participation rights in Swiss cantons is strongly correlated with levels of voter information. The influence of greater potential for political participation is substantial: living in the most democratic canton (Basel-Land) rather than in the least democratic one (Geneva) raises citizens’ information-level by the same magnitude as an increase in education from the minimum compulsory education to having attained a high-school diploma; or alternatively, as an increase in household monthly income from 5,000 CHF (Swiss franc) to 9,000 CHF (about $4,000 to $7,000).

Participation / Democracy vote

The survey we used for our analysis also asked respondents whether they had discussed voting choices with people around them (the proponents of deliberative polling see the process of discussion as a crucial element of democracy). Indeed, we found evidence of a higher “discussion intensity” in the more democratic cantons; for example, the citizens of Basel-Land were one fifth more likely to discuss political issues than people living in Geneva. This higher discussion intensity is likely to be responsible for the higher information levels in the more democratic cantons.

Also in openDemocracy: dLiberation - discovering tomorrow’s Europe, a blog dedicated to exploring the merits of deliberative democracy in the context of the Tomorrow’s Europe experiment on 12-14 October 2007; edited by J Clive Matthews, it features contributions from (among many others) James S Fishkin, Arthur Lupia, Amy Gutmann, and Ian O’Flynn

In sum, extended political-participation rights seem to make people better informed about politics. This is because they change the supply as well as the demand for political information. On the supply side, more opportunity to participate means that more policy choices are subject to voter control, and thus more information about those choices is published by press, political parties and pressure groups. On the demand side, individuals take responsibility for making decisions and become more informed – often because of a social context in which “having an opinion” is in itself important.

Popular referenda on important European Union matters in all European countries would go a long way to achieve one of the goals proposed by deliberative polling: to make people better informed about the EU and to be aware of its main political challenges. The difference is that popular referenda would reach a large share of the 500 million citizens, not just a few hundreds.

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