Home Loka Projects Search Site Updates Contents

Loka Alert 8:1 (February 1, 2001)

From: Loka Staff
Date: Thu Feb 1, 2001 6:33pm
Subject: Referenda and Democracy



Friends & Colleagues:

In this Loka Alert author Don Straus discusses the future of democracy by examining the referenda as a way of increasing citizen input and participation in democratic processes. Given the recent Presidential election, Straus' discussion is quite timely. The Alert poses several questions in the hopes of bringing about a larger debate on the issue. I hope Alert readers will take him up on the challenge, and contact him at <Don@d...>.

This is one in an occasional series on the democratic politics of research, science, and technology issued free of charge by the nonprofit Loka Institute. TO BE ADDED TO THE LOKA ALERT E-MAIL LIST, or to reply to this post, please send a message to Loka Staff.

Cheers to all,

Jill Chopyak Executive Director

The Loka Institute
Jill Chopyak, Executive Director
P.O. Box 355
Amherst MA 01004
E-mail Loka Staff
Web http://www.Loka.org
Tel. 413-559-5860
Fax 413-559-5811




(II) LOKA INSTITUTE UPDATES.................................(3/4 page) (CRN updates, European conference, New publication)

(III) INTERNSHIPS...........................................(1/2 page)

(IV) ABOUT THE LOKA INSTITUTE..............................(1/2 page)


One of the many extraordinary surprises of our new century is the widespread acceptance of Winston Churchill's famous observation that democracy is the worst form of government except for all others. And yet even for us in the United States who have one of the longest histories of democratic governance, it is increasingly obvious that it may not be good enough to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The recent U.S. Presidential election debacle was a clear indication of the threat to U.S. democratic processes. Unless we make some fundamental revisions to the way we conduct our democratic decision- making, we may well lose our democracy. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. recently expressed such worries in Foreign Affairs:

"By 1941, only about a dozen democracies were left on the planet. The political, economic, and moral failures of democracy had handed the initiative to totalitarianism. Something like this could happen again. If liberal democracy fails in the 21st century, as it failed in the twentieth, to construct a humane, prosperous, and peaceful world, it will invite the rise of alternative creeds apt to be based, like fascism and communism, on flight from freedom and surrender to authority."

This Loka Alert examines one inadequacy of citizen participation - the referendum - and offers for comment a possible solution to improve the quality of decisions when involving "we, the people". My intent is to begin a discussion on, or examples of, actual or experimental programs for rectifying flaws in democratic government, particularly through the use of new technologies.

The referendum, in its design, is the most direct route for official citizen participation. In practice, however, it is seriously damaged. In a recent book on referenda, David Broder sounds an alarm with these opening words:

"At the start of a new century a new form of government is spreading in the United States. It is alien to the spirit of the Constitution and its careful system of checks and balances. Though derived from a reform favored by Populists and Progressives as a cure for special- interest influence, this method of lawmaking has become the favored tool of millionaires and interest groups that use their wealth to achieve their own policy goals - a lucrative business for a new set of political entrepreneurs."

After describing a number of cases in which lobbyists have chosen the referenda as a cheaper and more certain way to secure legislation for their cause, Broder then makes this prediction:

"I do not think it will be long before the converging forces of technology and public opinion coalesce in a political movement for a national initiative - to allow the public to substitute the simplicity of majority rule by referendum for what must seem to many frustrated Americans the arcane, ineffective, out-of-date model of the Constitution...But the experience with the initiative process at the state level in the last two decades is that wealthy individuals and special interests have learned all too well how to subvert the process for their own purposes."

Of particular interest to readers, Broder speculates on current developments, as espoused by Ted Becker of Auburn University in a meeting sponsored by the Initiative and Referendum Institute in Washington, DC in May of 1999. Here is what he quotes from Becker's presentation:

"We will soon have an integrated Internet-television-telephone connection in every home that will allow the unlimited distribution of information and interchange of ideas. Second, we have made great advances in our conflict resolution techniques that facilitate reaching consensus. Third, groups of all kinds are learning to use the Internet to organize like-minded people, wherever they live. And fourth, the development of scientific, deliberative polling -- where random samples of citizens actually discuss and debate alternatives -- makes it far more feasible to formulate ballot initiatives without the distortion of money."

Broder then proceeds to discuss in some depth the rapid advances in both technology and human skills for encouraging deliberative problem solving among large numbers of citizens. However, the book concludes with the wish to end the trend towards direct citizen involvement in policy-making of any kind:

"Admittedly, representative government has acquired a dubious reputation today. But as citizens, the remedy to ineffective representation is in our hands each election day. And whatever its flaws, this Republic has consistently provided a government of laws. To discard it for a system that promises laws without government would be a tragic mistake."

The weakness of Broder's conclusions is not in his criticism of current uses of the referendum, but in his failure to imagine other alternatives for direct citizen involvement in governing. The survival of democracy depends on more, not less citizen involvement. Surely the diminishing number of American voters to under 50% of the eligible electorate is not healthy. Let us not forget that the U.S. New England Town Meeting has always been an honored forum for reaching local decisions. There is not much point in an either/or debate over direct citizen governance vs. governance by elected representatives. I am assuming, and take pleasure in doing so, that the referendum will not be abolished. I hope that Becker's prediction of increased direct citizen involvement in decision making is a more plausible alternative than Broder's wish to have it disappear. The proper questions, therefore, are rather how best to utilize the wisdom of "we, the people" in a way that will strengthen our democratic decision making rather than putting a gag on it.

The proper role for "we, the people" in direct democracy has been a subject of debate from the birth of our nation right down to the present, and is central to current views about the referenda. I describe below some key questions for discussion and supplement them with my strongly expressed opinions as a lubricant to get ideas flowing.


A wide range of questions are submitted to U.S. citizens each year in referenda. These questions include the ratification of specific bond issues, laws involving abortion, environmental protection, road construction, education, and many others. In most cases the voter is asked to respond yes or no to a previously formulated solution, usually in the form of a law that will be enacted if it receives a majority vote. For our discussion here, this practice raises these questions:

* Should laws be enacted by citizens in a referendum? I agree with Becker's quote above that direct citizen legislation is not a proper role for "we, the people" and that it often results in poorly researched consequences and undermines the role of the elected legislators without wisely using the wisdom of ordinary citizens.

* Should questions be submitted in a yes/no format? Posing yes/no questions to citizens on a complex issues cuts off deliberative discussion and defeats the purpose of involving them in the debate. Issues should be presented in a form that will generate constructive "problem solving" about important policy issues and will seek consensus for guidance to the appropriate legislature as they go about their law making responsibilities. I submit that, paradoxically, this advisory role for citizens will be more empowering than a direct role in legislating. It will tap the common sense and practical wisdom of "we, the people", it will refine this wisdom which is so often flawed by inadequate information with specific education on all aspects and views of the issue, and it will link the common sense of common people for defining goals with the expertise of technologists and other specialists for implementing these goals.


U.S. political culture is deeply rooted in adversarial communication and "education", and like all cultural patterns, it will not be easy to change. A first imperative for citizen participation in decision making is to improve the quality of information provided to citizens in connection with any referendum. There should be publicly sponsored educational classes, supplemented by radio and television coverage. This should be a priority addition to any future referenda, whether the results are mandatory legislation or advisory indication of public opinion. But as I suggested above, most issues today are too complex for simple yes/no answers. Issues worthy of involving citizens demand initial education leading to an understanding of the many factors involved and the invention of alternative solutions before the selection of any one solution is made.

For example, a yes/no question asking whether or not a dam should be built or removed should never be presented to citizens for decision without first educating them on a number of linked concerns such as: the impact on environmental issues such as fish, pollution, navigation, wild-life, recreation, water quality and use, fish ladders, etc. Adversarial sound-bite presentations, telephone and mail communications advocating a solution are all well suited to the referendum as now practiced, and is the perfect medium for those with large economic interests in a particular solution and the money to spend in getting that result. But those strategies are propaganda, not education.

When we seek the opinion of citizens on issues of serious consequence, we cannot depend upon their passive reception of adversarial opinions alone. We owe them high quality education through active deliberative discussion and facilitated exchanges over an extended period of time. And it also requires the innovative use of electronic communication.

This suggestion is less radical than it may at first appear to be. The U.S. already has in place a very familiar and somewhat similar role for relying on the judgment of "we, the people" -- jury duty. Every day hundreds of cases involving life and death issues and huge sums of money are decided by jurors composed of ordinary citizens. There are, however, major differences which are not trivial. Firstly, the U.S. legal system of decision making is quintessentially adversarial and it is limited to a dozen individuals sitting in the same court room. Not until recently have we had the technological facilities to involve huge numbers of citizens, and to do so without requiring them to be face- to-face at any one time. Secondly, jurors are, in effect, "drafted" from the general public and in a way designed to get a cross-section of citizens. Whether or not a process for "drafting" a random sample of eligible voters for a new kind of referendum is feasible, or even desirable, should be considered.

There have been a number of experiments of this kind, usually referred to as "citizen juries". A leading organization fostering this idea in the U.S. is the Jefferson Center. A citizen jury is a group of individuals selected at random very much the way juries are selected for the law courts. There the analogy ends. Such juries could be "drafted" for public service (as are court juries) or could be managed by non-profit organizations. A more important difference from a court jury is this: the process for reaching decisions introduced in most current citizen jury experiments is patterned on deliberative democracy procedures as described above. The European Consensus conference process and the U.S. Citizens Panel (as piloted by Loka in 1997) is one such example of how citizens are providing input into complex policy decisions.

Such facilitated exchanges could also conform to the procedures of modern and still evolving deliberative problem-solving. They would follow a sequence of steps designed to get consensus such as: definition of the issue, clarity of desired goals, presentation of alternative solutions and their predicted outcomes, and discussion of preferred solutions.

Administrative details and issues about how to do this are numerous. For example, should we develop a cadre of facilitators for this re- invented type of referendum that are similar to mediators now supplied by the government for labor-management disputes? Should we rely on voluntary citizen participation without restrictions, or should we require that only those who sign up and participate in the educational programs be eligible to select the solution? Should we try to recruit a representative sample of the total electorate?


As we have observed above, the U.S. referendum generally results in either a new law or the elimination of an existing law. This is maximum empowerment of the citizen and its philosophy has deep roots in the Town Meeting that still exists in many small U.S. New England communities. But these roots were sewn in an age when the complexity and technical power of most decisions were very different.

As stated above, I strongly opposed legislation resulting from a referendum. My opposition was based on two premises: (1) I doubt that any random sampling of volunteer voters are sufficiently educated to make wise decisions on issues that include highly technical and complex issues such as energy sources, medical coverage, international affairs, or environmental concerns. I would include even citizens with college degrees in this harsh judgment. (2) I also believe that legislators have a critical role in our form of democratic decision making that must not be diminished. Legislators are responsible for implementing the policy preferences of citizen voters who elect them. A referendum that clarifies citizen preferences is valid. But one that cedes law-making to citizens is neither valid empowerment nor in society's best interest.

Developing an effective way to educate millions of citizens while collaboratively solving problems (as we have learned to do for a dozen citizens for adversarial court cases) would enhance the ability of the average citizens to understand complex and technical matters - especially for defining preferred policy. I would, however, continue to draw a line between policy direction and legal implementation by confining citizen to making policy, but not making laws.


How should we use current and future electronic communication to increase education and enhance citizen involvement in referenda and policy-making?

When we speculate on the role of electronic communication, we are dealing with a moving target. If we were considering technology for a new kind of referendum for today, we would include radio, television, and most probably email. With as-yet-to-be-designed facilitation skills that can be provided via new electronic communication technology, such as digital television and video conferencing, a huge number of citizens - in fact a statistical random sample large enough to be considered an accurate reflection of the eligible electorate - could be included in a government sponsored educational endeavor.

But the use of new technology for citizen interaction is always problematical, and must be approached with a critical and sensitive eye. The history of widespread acceptance of new means of communication is characterized by ever decreasing time periods before they became widely used. Consider the printing press, loud speakers in auditoriums, radios, educational motion pictures, the telephone, and television. I personally recall going overseas during World War II before there were few if any television antenna visible on roof tops and returning to see them scattered almost everywhere. However, whether or not digital television is a suitable medium for use in future referenda is a decision of great importance and complexity. I would apply to any consideration of its use the same caution about posing the decision in yes/no terms. Certainly there should be to face-to-face discussion and creative and sensitive use of the rapidly evolving electronic technology combined with modern facilitation methods. This could create some semblance of the original town meeting and make it available for millions of participants.

This may seem like a futuristic fantasy. But without new thinking, I foresee a future nightmare for those who have concerns for the future of democracy. The challenge for Loka participants is to design a new kind of referendum - one that combines the facilitation of deliberative problem solving with conventional face-to-face meetings and new electronic communication potentials.


1. HAS DEMOCRACY A FUTURE? Foreign Affairs. September/October 1997.. 2. Broder, David S. DEMOCRACY DERAILED, INITIATIVE CAMPAIGNS AND THE POWER OF MONEY. Harcourt, 2000 3. Ibid., p. 1. 4. Ibid., p. 242. 5. Ibid., p. 237 6. Ibid., p. 243. 7. For an excellent and comprehensive discussion of the role of citizens in democratic societies see: CRITICAL REVIEW, Vol 12, No 4, Fall 1998, Special Issue: Public Ignorance and Democracy, published by the Critical Review Foundation, Cambridge, MA. This interesting and disturbing publication contains a series of essays that both unmask some fallacies about the power, knowledge, and the ability of citizens in contemporary democracies to play a constructive role in self-government and also presents arguments suggesting superiority under certain conditions of decisions made by "we, the people" over those made by specialists and "educated elites". 8. This of course, should not preclude adversarial presentations by clearly designated advocates. The difference is that such presentations should be subject to questioning and rebuttal by both the citizen decision makers and by adversaries or scholars with different points of view. 9. For an authoritative description, history and evaluation of citizen juries, see FAIRNESS AND COMPETENCE, Chapters 8 & 9, and Appendix C.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Donald B. Straus <Don@d...> is a past president of the American Arbitration Association, and before that was executive vice president of the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York. He is currently living with his wife in Somesville, ME where he is a member of the board and a teaching associate of the College of the Atlantic. He is a trustee emeritus of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, the Institute for Advanced Studies, past Chair of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. He was a research fellow of the Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria. He was among the first to teach courses on the Internet as an adjunct professor of ConnectEd, an experimental program affiliated with the New School for Social Science in New York City. He holds an AB and MBA from Harvard University.

Back to Page Contents


1. Community Research Network Update: the Loka Institute has hired Khan Rahi to work with us for the next three and a half months on the Community Research Network (CRN) project. He is a community-based researcher with extensive community development background in grass- roots organizing within the human services field, and has worked with a wide range of ethno-racial communities in the Canadian context. A particular focus of Khan's work is the analysis and organizational review of partnerships and coalition-building initiatives across different institutions and disciplines within the academic, NGO and public sector. Khan also has extensive international experience through his work as an active NGO member of the International Metropolis Project, a consortium of 20 countries and six international organizations that share perspectives on immigration policy by means of applied research. He has also worked extensively at the local level, with a variety of research, community health education programs, advisory councils, universities, and different level of governments and public institutions.

Over the next few months, Khan's will work in coordination and consultation with Loka's, Executive Director, Jill Chopyak, in coordinating the Community Research Network (CRN). This will include developing the CRN's infrastructure, planning a series of conversations on the CRN-listserve, and responding to Network members and Loka affiliates regarding the CRN and community-based research. In addition, Khan will develop and implement a US-wide Outreach Plan for the CRN, with a particular emphasis on increasing international contacts at the local, regional and national level. He will also play a supportive and advisory role on a number of current and new initiatives to strengthen the CRN and Loka projects. We encourage Loka affiliates to feel free to contact Khan <aackrahi@w...> to discuss any ideas, proposals or suggestions you may have on how to cultivate local, regional, national, and international interest in community based research. Khan will also be working to plan the next CRN conference this summer, so looks forward to hearing from you about your interests.

2. Living Knowledge: Building and International Science Shop Network: Loka helped organize and participated in a European-Union sponsored conference (January 25-27, 2001)aimed at building an international network of science shops/community research centers. The Conference brought together approximately 115 participants from 20 countries, and was held in Leuven, Belgium. Discussion was focused on a growing world-wide trend to democratize science and technology. A more in- depth summary of the conference will be provided in a subsequent Loka Alert.

3. Hazel Henderson, a Loka Advisory Board member, has donated a limited number of copies of her new book "Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators: A New Tool for Assessing National Trends." The book offers a comprehensive, easy to use, picture of the overall well- being of the nation, statistically verifiable, grounded in empirical knowledge, and rigorous in its treatment of a wide range of aspects of life. This volume was created by a multi-disciplinary group of practitioners and scholars from government agencies, for-profit firms, and nonprofit organizations who see the need for more practical and sophisticated metrics of societal conditions. Copies of the book can be purchased from the Loka web site, <http://www.Loka.org.>

Back to Page Contents


The Loka Institute has openings for volunteers, graduate and undergraduate student interns, and work-study students.

Interns' responsibilities include updating our Web page; managing email lists and listservs; conducting background research on issues concerning science, technology, and society; and helping with administrative work. Interns committing to a semester or more will have the opportunity to integrate independent research into their internship experience.

Candidates should be self-motivated and able to work as part of a team as well as independently. A general knowledge and comfort with computers is needed. Experience in Web page maintenance is preferable. Undergraduate students, graduate students, and recent graduates are welcome to apply. Loka is able to provide interns with an expense stipend of $35 per day for volunteering (or $700 per month full-time-equivalent).

If you are interested in working with us to promote a democratic politics of science and technology, please send a resume and a succinct cover letter explaining your interest and dates of availability to: The Loka Institute, P.O. Box 355, Amherst, MA 01004, USA. We also are accept applications by e-mail to Loka Staff or by fax to 413-559-5811.

Back to Page Contents


The Loka Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making research, science and technology responsive to democratically decided social and environmental concerns. Current Loka projects include:

  • The Community Research Network
  • Deliberative Citizens' Panels on Science & Technology
  • Identifying Democratic Technologies
  • Building a Constituency for Democratizing Research, Science & Technology

TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE LOKA INSTITUTE, to participate in our on- line discussion groups, to download or order publications, or to help, please visit our Web page: <http://www.Loka.org>. Or contact us via E-mail at Loka Staff or by telephone at 413-559-5860.

Back to Page Contents


Up Loka Alert 10:1 Loka Alert 9:6 Loka Alert 9:5 Loka Alert 9:4 Loka Alert 9:2 CIO-100 AWARD Loka Alert 9:1 Loka Alert 8:6 Loka Alert 8:5 Loka Alert 8:4 Loka Alert 8:3 Loka Alert 8:2 Loka Alert 8.1 Loka Alert 7.5 Loka Alert 7.4 Loka Alert 7.3 Loka Alert 7.2 Loka Alert 7.1 Loka Alert 6.7 Loka Alert 6.6 Loka Alert 6.5 Loka Alert 6.4 Loka Alert 6.3 Loka Alert 6.2 Loka Alert 4.4 Loka Alert 4.3 Life, Liberty and GT


Support Loka with an on-line secure-site donation: Donate Now!

The Loka Institute
660 Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E.
Suite 302
Washington, D.C. 20003
Telephone: 301-585-9398
Send mail to Loka@Loka.org with questions or comments about this web site.
All materials are for educational purposes only. All rights revert to author where applicable.
This page last modified: October 14, 2004 The Loka Institute