Experiments in Democracy

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The participatory budget of Icapui, Brazil. The left column reads, “where the money comes from.” The one on the right reads, “what the money is spent for.” Below it says,”When the administration is transparent, everything works smoothly.” [Paolo Massa / Flickr]

Back in September we introduced the idea of doing a show about race, class and voting with Harvard Law professor and voting rights activist Lani Guinier. While prepping for that show, I had an amazing conversation with Professor Guinier. A conversation that, as it turned out, had almost nothing to do with race and class.

Instead, we spent an hour talking about “experiments in democracy” — small but radical, hyper-local examples of people re-defining democracy to be more about civic participation and less about a few minutes in a voting booth. Specific examples she cited included a citizen assembly in Vancouver that redesigned British Columbia’s election system, deliberative citizen roundtables in Los Angeles, and participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

So as the election approaches and we near the end of our midterms series, we’re taking a break to focus on the nature of democracy and civic engagement beyond the ballot box. How are people trying to re-invent democracy in small but significant ways? How are their efforts important or different — successful or not? And could these case studies in LA or Porto Allegre be applied on a wider scale?

Lani Guinier

Bennett Boskey Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Author, The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy

Shoni Field

Former member of the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly

Co-chair of the Citizens’ Assembly Alumni Association

Thanks to sidewalker for helping research the BC Citizens’ Assembly.

Daniel Kemmis

Former Mayor of Missoula, Montana

Former Montanta state legislator

Senior Fellow, Center for the Rocky Mountain West

Author, Community and the Politics of Place

Thanks to emmettoconnell for suggesting Daniel Kemmis.

Gianpaolo Baiocchi

Associate Professor of SociologyU Mass Amherst

Author, Militants and Citizens: The Politics Of Participatory Democracy In Porto Alegre

Co-facilitator, ParticipatoryBudgeting.org

Gianpaolo Baiocchi works on participatory budgeting initiatives in the US and Canada with Josh Lerner, who was recommended by momos. Thanks to momos for the recommendation and for the links.

Extra Credit Reading

Steven Hill, Citizens’ Assembly Can Lead Reform, The New America Foundation, March 15, 2005: “A better vehicle for reform is available, one well-suited to the Governor’s populist style. It’s called a Citizens’ Assembly, and has been on display for the past year to the north, where our Canadian neighbors in the province of British Columbia turned over to the people the task of basic political reform. It holds the advantage of taking the partisanship out of reform, something Schwarzenegger badly needs to do if he wishes to succeed.”

History of the Citizens’ Assembly, Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, May, 2005: “The Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was a unique initiative. Nowhere else in the world had such power over an electoral system been given to non-elected citizens. The premier of B.C., Gordon Campbell, promised in 2001 that, if elected, his government would establish such an Assembly. Here’s what happened after that:”

And check out these audio and video clips from the Citizens’ Assembly courtesy of Sidewalker.

(via Sidewalker) J. H. Snider, Citizens Assembly Blog, September 10, 2006: “J.H. Snider’s blog covering citizens assembly developments throughout the world”

(via John K. Fitzpatrick) Parecon, ZNet, “Participatory Economics (Parecon for short) is a type of economy proposed as an alternative to contemporary capitalism. The underlying values are equity, solidarity, diversity, and participatory self management.”

(via Stephen Buckley) New England Town Meeting, New Rules Project, “The New England town meeting and school district meeting are the only direct democracy institutions in the United States involving lawmaking by assembled voters. Law making by assembled adult males dates to the age of Pericles in Greece in the fifth century B.C. But the only other currently assembled voters’ lawmaking body is the Landsgemeinde in a handful of Swiss cantons.”

(via Stephen Buckley) Peter Porcupine, Town Meeting Time, Peter Porcupine, May 19, 2005: “To Porcupine, a really stressful spinning class just isn’t in the same catagory of importance as an annual life and death struggle to hoard enough food to last during a New England winter, so the ‘too busy’ excuse doesn’t wash.”

Get involved in some experimental democracy yourself:

ThereOughtaBeALaw.org, “ThereOughtaBeALaw.org is a website for people to work together to create online bills that they think should be laws. You can post new ideas for laws, share bills with your friends, sponsor other peoples bills and suggest changes to any bill in the system.”

e-democracy.org, “Building online public space in the heart of real democracy and community since 1994.”

The Citizendium Project, “The Citizendium (sit-ih-ZEN-dee-um), a “citizens’ compendium of everything,” will be an experimental new wiki project that combines public participation with gentle expert guidance.”

Also check out ICELE Online, Wicracy.org

Related Content

  • Peter Bradley

    I believe that the entire phenomonon of George Bush has been an experiment in democracy by Carl Rove. I really hopes he writes the book. NBC News reported that President Bush would rather be talking about taxes than talking about Iraq. I think they are wrong. President Bush doesn’t really care what he talks about because what he talks about is a smoke screen to divert attention away from the real strategy. Bush and Rove are planning to win the election – retain majority – through the whisper campaigns that will start next week. These whisper campaigns will bring people out to vote against stem cell research, gay marriage, abortion illegal immigrants, welfare, and every other hot button fear that they can think up and aim at their base. These issues are not part of candidate platforms but are part of ballot referenda. They have been carefully researched to be regional. They were quietly placed on the ballots months ago. Look at those in the various states. Then listen for the whispers. That will bring people out to vote. and while they are voting for “conservative” issues or voting against “liberal” issues they will also vote for the conservative candidate. And that is why everybody but Bush and his team will be surprised on Wednesday morning, November 8.

    As two side issues

    1 How about some investigative reporting on voting machines BEFORE the election?

    2 Remember when Bush asked Attorney General Gonzolaz to research what would justify canceling an election? From a Bush perspective, a Democrat majority means impeachment. when the cancel rumors start to fly, THAT’S when you know the Bush team is afraid of losing.

    Pete Bradley

    Narragansett, RI

  • David Weinstein

    Yes, Pete, canceling an election if he is sure to lose. Intimidating, denying registration and purging from the roles those citizens who are likely to vote for the other guys, is the Rove electorial technique for 2000. This suped-up Jim Crow for African Americans and the res to us together with digital/electronic election fraud was the game ploan for 2004.

    I think the answer to this tyranny is what was imp-lied in this show — citizen participation in civil society and democracy, a citizen vigilence against the tyranny the founders knew would be inevitable.

    Why Bush thinks he is above democrcy is a matter of specualtion. Privilege? Blind Christain right faith that he is on a mission from G-d that trumps democracy and the rule of law? Insanity that runs in the royal family? A poisonous brew of all the above?

  • Bobo

    If we are referring to democracy as majority rule, then despite the fraud, etc, Bush probably is a product of democracy. But it sound like we are talking about something else here. The democracies BY and FOR the people which have come of late in BC, LA , and Brazil, ring of something more than simple majority rule. What we are talking about here is the active participation of a community in the forces which control it. It is the coming together of independent, free thinking people in order to alter the circumstances in their collective lives.

    Some other great examples of this are:

    –The conventions of consensus in the anarchist activism community across the US.

    –The inner city warehouse movement.

    –The ECs (Emergency Community).

  • Yes. The discussion of democracy is too often focussed on the act of voting and not on everything that goes on in between.

    Daniel Kemmis (former mayor of Missoula and speaker of the MT house) wrote a couple of good books that talk about the need for small, local democracy, especially in the West. This Sovereign Land and Community and the Politics of Place are two very good books about the practice of civic in a real world setting.

    Otherwise, I can think of two good examples that haven’t been mentioned, the e-democracy effort in Minnesota and a similiar effort in the UK.

  • One more: an effort in California (now over) to write political party platforms by wiki.

    While the wikipedia model may not work for this kind of thing, the new Citizendium project, where people are held accountable for what they write, may be a better model.

    Also, the brand new There Oughta Be A Law by Scott Chacon.

  • martinfowler

    A topic I’d like to see covered in this kind of discussion is the different experience of democracy in Switzerland. My experience of this is limited to visits and a good book (Why Switzerland by Steinberg) but the interesting thing is how different their tradition is to the Anglo-American tradition of democracy that we take for granted.

  • webgremlin

    Local communities need to encourage participation in local politics. It’s a simple equation of divide and conquer. As a nation of “one man one voters”, individuals are virtually powerless. Maybe if we peeked over our fences every now and then and tried talking to our neighbors, we could come together as communities and start to reclaim some sort of control over the direction our communities and policies are going in.

  • tbrucia

    Perhaps it is time to ban words like ‘democracy’, ‘fascist’, etc. as meaningless noises — since they mean all things to all people. Way back Americans used to distinguish between the words ‘republic’ (good and what America was), and ‘democracy’ (bad and what America was not). In those ancient times (a hundred years ago!), folks used a dictionary — a fat book with words explaining other words. Democracy defined by the Oxford English (2nd edition) is ambiguous… it starts, “Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole…” It then muddies the water by continuing, “… and is exercised either directly by them… [fine so far] or by officers elected by them.” So what happens when the officers elected choose NOT defy the will of the 51 percent who elected them and ‘go over’ to the 49 percent who did not? Unclear. The Oxford then goes on to further muddy the water by stating, “In modern use more often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitary differences of rank or privilege.” By this definition the US is certainly NOT democracy, since rank and privileges are both determined by heriditary differences (not just the Kennedy Clan and the Bush Family, but a host of similar hereditary power holders). — Incidentally, it might be interesting to examine the host of democracies (from Rome to Weimar) which followed a path from rule by the mob to rule by The Leader. The majority seems to often want a Daddy to tell them what to do… I recommend you to Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ and to Book One of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ to stimulate thought about the meaning of democracy in an environment of ‘winner takes all’.

  • plnelson

    “I believe that the entire phenomonon of George Bush has been an experiment in democracy by Carl Rove.”

    Then how come you and I aren’t intimidated/mesmerized/seduced by Mr Rove and his minions?

    Both the left and the right keep trying to promote the idea that “I” (whoever is speaking) am a rational, conscious, free agent, not duped by the Forces of Darkness, while all about us are sheeplike automatons sleepwalking in step to a tune being played by (pick your villain: George Bush, Karl Rove, The Liberal Media, Big Business, Madison Avenue, eggheaded academics, et al)

    I think that’s elitist. We ALL make choices. The choices include where to get our news, how much time to spend studying the issues, and how much skepticism to apply to public figures, “the authorities”, religious leaders, or the media. Also what level of risk and uncertainty we’re willing to accept in our lives, on what basis to decide if something is “true” (in philosophy this is called ‘epistemology’ – the average person may not know the term, but they make judgements every day about what’s true), and what they regard to be the relationship between the individual and the larger world.

    Everyone is responsible for their choices, INCLUDING the choice of how much to THINK about how we make our choices. If Karl Rove influences people it’s because they have made choices that give him that influence.

  • plnelson

    “Perhaps it is time to ban words like ‘democracy’, ‘fascist’, etc. as meaningless noises — since they mean all things to all people. ”

    No they don’t. Democracy is any system of government where ultimate authority lies with the people (“demos”). There’s nothing ambiguous about it. It doesn’t matter whether the people vote on the laws themselves, or elect the people who do, as long as they retain the ultimate authority to UN-elect them if they don’t do their bidding.

    Fascism also has a much more precise meaning than some people think. It refers to a system where businesses are privately owned (as opposed to socialism where they are owned by the state) but the government is autocratic, and often has a close relationship with the businesses. Examples would be Mussolini’s Italy, NAZI Germany, and modern China.

    The idea that words like “democracy”, “fascism”, “socialism”, “capitalism” don’t have meanings originated in the academy, by the same people who gave us semiotics and deconststructionism. To them all words have infinitely flexible meanings, and indeed, it’s no surprise that many of those same academics come from the same leftist point of view that allowed places like East Germany to declare themselvs a “people’s democratic republic”.

  • Words like “democracy” and “liberal” have a history of use and abuse and there is an ongoing struggle over meaning in any language community in the will to power and love. Tossing them out makes little sense unless you can also erase memory.

    It is not that these terms have no meaning, it is just that there is nothing pure about the messy signs we employ to represent concepts, ideologies and social practice. There is no Etymology paradise. This is the message of semiotics and deconstructionism.

    The problem is when political and social struggle is mainly over meaning and controlled by professional spinners and news reader and people are not able or not willing to seek out other sources of information. It’s when we forget that actual practice, such as the “experiments in democracy”, can silence rhetoric and expose the sham that is a politics of wealth and privilege.

    I’ll let Leonard Cohen from his song Democracy have the last word in this post, and I hope you play this to lead off the show.


    But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags

    that Time cannot decay.

    I’m junk but I’m still holding up

    this little wild bouquet:

    Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

  • Robin, have you contacted J.H. Snider as a possible guest for the show? He blogs at:


    It would also be interesting to have on someone who participated in one of the “experiments” to explain how they got involved and the process they went through. (No doubt you have thought of this.)

  • Here is some information on the The Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform (British Columbia)




    Quick Comparison: First Past the Post & BC-STV


  • Here is a news report on some of the controversy surrounding the Citizens’ Assembly and the terms of reference imposed by the party in power.

    Why did the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly make the surprising choice of asking voters to endorse a little-known electoral system called the single transferable vote, or STV?

    The assembly rejected an overwhelming number of submissions favouring changing the current first-past-the-post system to one called mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), a system used in more countries in the world than any other. Instead, the assembly went for STV, which is used in only a few jurisdictions, such as Ireland, Malta, Tasmania, and the Australian senate.

    In interviews with Citizens’ Assembly members and through observing its final meeting on November 27, the key reasons for picking STV have emerged:

    * The assembly quickly developed a strong antipolitical party tendency and rejected mixed-member proportional representation for being a party-friendly system;

    * Assembly members reacted very negatively to strong pressure from the Green party and leader Adriane Carr to adopt MMP;

    * And the B.C. Liberal government’s terms of reference prohibited the assembly from making recommendations that would add more seats to the legislature. That effectively meant an MMP system would have to eliminate up to half of B.C.’s existing ridings to create “party list” seats for MLAs elected to reflect the popular vote percentage.

    Citizens’ Assembly member Rick Dignard is unhappy with the STV decision and believes the referendum held in conjunction with the provincial election on May 17, 2005, will reject STV.

    “On a huge level, STV makes absolutely no sense,” Dignard said in an interview with the Georgia Straight. “It wasn’t the right fit for B.C. If you want things to change, don’t freak people out.

    read more:


  • Here is some Audio & Video information on the Citizens’ Assembly.

    It includes proceedings from “six Learning Phase weekends, a meeting held in Prince George and the six Deliberation Phase weekends.”


  • Speaking of participatory budgeting:

    Participatory Economics (Parecon for short) is a type of economy proposed as an alternative to contemporary capitalism. The underlying values are equity, solidarity, diversity, and participatory self management. The main institutions are workers and consumers councils utilizing self managed decision making, balanced job complexes, remuneration according to effort and sacrifice, and participatory planning. This page links to articles, interviews, talks, instructionals, Q/A sessions, and books about parecon and closely related matters.


    see also:



  • conohawk

    So when are we going to address the elephant in the room?

    Democracies, no matter the particular formulation, do not function well when a large sub part of the population is largely uninformed.

    As the subject at hand is “Experiments in Democracy”, I think it would be very interesting to look at the evidence provided by the efforts of other nations to solve this critical potential weakness of democracies.

    It is pretty clear that a substantial number of Americans, both educated and not, are clueless about their government and the larger world. Is that the case in other Western nations? Is better education the answer? Have other democracies taken active measures to better educate the citizenry?

    Perhaps the class that has recently assumed full control of the country would find it beneficial to leave things as they are. Flash a stream of sleazy television ads right before the election, then stay the course.

  • Robin

    Hey all – just catching up on this thread after being out of town Thursday and Friday for the Third Coast Festival. Lots o’ good stuff up here right now.

    Bobo – I think you nailed it in your assessment of what we’re trying to do in this show. But I’m not familiar with the three examples you listed. Do you have any more info about the anarchist communities, warehouse movement, or the ECs? I’d love to see some links on here to anything I could read about them, or anyone who can talk about these various movements.

    Emmettoconnell – awesome, thanks so much for those suggestions. I’m going to read the pieces you linked to right now.

    Sidewalker – wow, so far you get helpful suggestions MVP. Those BC links are incredibly helpful. I have not yet contacted J.H. Snider as a possible guest, but now I most likely will. My hope is that most of the other guests besides Prof. Guinier will be such participants, as you’ve recommended.

    JKF – very cool. I will check out those links. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything in Z Magazine. This is a good excuse.

    Conohawk – I think you make an important point about an educated citizenry being crucial to democracy. Any specific suggestions of places to look for good European comparisons? Which other nations? What are they doing? Would love some more specific ideas on that front.

  • Another set of ideas to use in developing online forums for democracy is the article A democracy of groups in the journal First Monday. This adds at least a dimension to the current use of email lists and web forums: new technical measures for representing information, assigning reputation, and binding people into groups can make it easier to discuss political positions.

  • Robin

    hey martinfowler- I just re-read your comment about Switzerland. I knew nothing about Switzerland’s form of near direct democracy until I talked to Katherine here, who is Swiss. It sounds fascinating from how Katherine describes it, but is there anything new about what they’re doing? Any current manifestations of democracy in Switzerland that are edifying? I’m happy to look into examples from abroad, but I think there should be something timely about it. If you think there’s something else there I’d love to know about it. Thanks.

  • martinfowler

    Robin – New for whom? I don’t know of anything new about Swiss-style democracy, all my information is very old. But hearing about it is new for me and raises questions about what we think democracy is or ought to be. Perhaps this isn’t the right topic for this show, better an angle to try another time. Even so I think it would be nice to have someone familiar with Swiss democracy give their perspective on these experiments (maybe some of them aren’t that new after all?)

  • I may be missing something, but Switzerland’s version of direct democracy, with initiative and referendum seems very familiar to the initiative and referendum process in many Western (US) states. Only that in the Swiss example, the signature barrier is much lower. This lower bar to participation may increase the impact of the common citizen on the process, and lower the advantage that well monied interests have in taking over the process. This is a tangent though, the Swiss model doesn’t seem so special to me. Maybe someone can set me straight.

    That said, the local nature of Swiss government (the power of the cantons vs. the relative weakness of the national government) may end up increasing the influence of the single citizen in that government is “close to the people,” as Jefferson would say. Swiss Cantons could well be a model for modern Jeffersonian “Ward Republics.”

  • momos

    The Swiss system has several obvious problems. Their “direct democracy” system resembles referendums and ballot initiatives in the US. Predictably, the voters who mobilize are typically strongly pro- or anti- while overall turnout is usually low. Their system is fractured and uniquely suited to a small country (pop 7 million, less than New York City) with significant linguistic and cultural divisions. Further, their citizenship requirements are extremely restrictive. It’s not unusual for third or fourth generation “immigrants” to not have full citizenship rights. In a strange twist on direct democracy, such people can appeal to the residents of their town, who hold a vote on whether the person should or shouldn’t be conferred full citizenship. Of course some people get it and some don’t depending on skin color and cultural affinities.

    More interesting for this show would be the experience of residents in public housing under the Toronto Housing Authority with participatory budgeting. Josh Lerner, a young housing activist known in progressive urban planning circles in New York City, wrote a widely-cited thesis on the Toronto case while at the University of Toronto (which has a reputation for being one of the most forward-thinking academic centers for scholarship and experiments in local democracy and planning in both the US and Canada). See “Building a Democratic City: How Participatory Budgeting Can Work in Toronto”, Josh Lerner (2004), prepared for the Community Engagement Unit, City of Toronto. An overview in shorter article form is available here.

  • Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution is a “No War” clause. It dates from 1947 at the end of World War II.

    ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

    In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.


    This article is now under threat as some leaders in the ruling party would like to revise the constitution to enable Japan to take a more pro-active role in national and international security issues.


    Less than 5% of Japanese people support a change, yet the Cabinet of Prime Minister Abe is studying a revision.

    Richard Armitage has suggested that Article 9 has hindered Japan’s chances at a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.


    Against this threat of growing militarism, a grass-roots democratic movement was started by the “Article 9 Association (A9A” to “shine the light of Article 9 upon this turbulent world,

    in order to join hands with the peace-seeking citizens of the world.”



    Rather than a revision of Japan’s constitution, it seems appropriate for the UN to pass a new global treaty based on Article 9, and democratic nations of the world could take the lead by ratifying the treaty and putting peaceful pressure on all nations to sign and ratify. Sure this is idealistic thinking, but we should remember that democratic experiments are born of such idealism in the face of growing endangerment to human survival.

  • jazzman

    sidewalker I couldn’t agree more with your last paragraph. The rogue nation that is we would surely be the stumbling block in any attempt to pacify the world except by force. We have reneged on every treaty we negotiated with our aboriginal population, we won’t sign the landmine ban treaty, nuclear disarmament is off the table and we reserve the right to preemptively launch a military strike against any nation that we fear. Until we as a nation conquer our fear of others (which is really fear of ourselves – left to our own sinful devices we’d run amok so we need a big daddy governmentt or God to reign us in) and love peace more than we hate war, we will reap as we sow.

    momos I agree, the ballot initiatives by referenda can be problematic. The few states (like Massachusetts) that allow this form of direct democracy need to make it difficult to place referenda on the ballot. The petition process should not be as onerous as to discourage trying but the initiative should be compelling enough to motivate citizens to work at the grassroots and get a significant quorum of voters to approve balloting. The reason Hamilton argued (and prevailed) for a representative system was to damp the passions of an overly emotional ill-advised populace thereby reducing the chance of unwise laws being codified. It didn’t work in the case of the Patriot Act as heated passions instead of cool heads prevailed in our representative body. As scribe5 wrote in the Gandhi thread generalia specialibus non derogant Bad laws result from attempting to extrapolate solutions from specific (heinous) actions.

    I am originally from Vermont and the Brazilian participatory budgeting article reminded me of the town meetings that still are extant in the state’s towns. I used to attend them when ever possible and the proceedings ran the gamut from benign to ugly, from petty, personal agenda to civically minded suggestions for the common weal. If this type of democracy were to scale to a larger U.S. population, the logistics and time involved would be problematic for people who have to hold down jobs. We need a participatory system that is governed by a constitution made up universal principles and a populace that accepts those principles.

    Peace and Freedom for ALL,


  • Stephen Buckley

    Regarding jazzman’s comment on “town meetings”:

    I am originally from Vermont and the Brazilian participatory budgeting article reminded me of the town meetings that still are extant in the state’s towns. I used to attend them when ever possible and the proceedings ran the gamut from benign to ugly, from petty, personal agenda to civically minded suggestions for the common weal.

    Coincidentally, I wanted to raise the issue of “town meeting” also. First off, most people in the U.S. have never been to a *real* “town meeting”, so how could they know that it is possible for hundreds of people to get together in one room and under the direction of an elected Moderator and “Robert’s Rules of Order” actually conduct democratic business on several propositions in one single evening!

    In the 1990’s, when I was in Washington, I noticed that the Clinton administration was fond of conducting what it called “town hall meetings” to make it seem like something democratic was happening when in fact it was, at best, only Q&A of an official by pre-selected “real people”people (instead of reporters).

    That term is now so loose that I read in U.S. News recently that a politician had a “town hall meeting” during a radio call-in show. Sheesh.

    As it relates to this topic, here are a couple of relevant links:

    “Devolving Authority and Democratizing Decisionmaking:

    New England Town Meeting”


    A humorous blogger talks about need for a Town Meeting “primer class” for all the people who don’t have a clue about “Rules of Order” (but think they do):


    Here’s a typical example of a Town Meeting –> There once was a moderator from Nantucket … who presided over debates about rezoning and wastewater treatment plant expansion (see link in upper-right of page for Meeting Rules):


    Do I think we can have a Town Meeting on a national scale? No. But if more people had practical, personal knowledge on how to meet with other people and vote on issues in an organized way, like we do at Town Meeting, then I believe that they would be better able to practice or recognize it in other settings.

    Otherwise, our national discourse will continue to resemble a Jerry Springer show, because that is the only frame of reference that many people have been given.

  • Ben


  • Stephen Buckley

    I just want to clarify that, in my recent post, I tried to insert a quoted paragraph from jazzman’s post about town meetings in Vermont. I did insert the *text* but it does not stand out as a quote. (A little help here on how to do that?)

    I am not from Vermont; I am from Massachusetts, where citizens from 300 out of its 351 towns are still “going to town meeting” as has been done for hundreds of years.

  • Can the traditional NE town hall be mixed with blogs/message boards/live meetings and be exported across the US?

  • PaulK

    Why not elect officials and pass bills with large citizen juries? I hate voting because my one vote isn’t really in a million years going to flip the senate over, so why bother?

  • Why no mention of living democratically from 9 to 5? yes, I mean at work.

    Just to broaden the range of “experiments” we look at, why not add the long overdue idea of democracy of the workplace? For example, I just came from a “worker-owner” meeting at my company – a 20 year old worker cooperative with 73 worker citizens.

    Now that I’ve worked and lived in this, I believe, successful experiment for 11 years, I have to say I find it frustrating to see everyone wail and moan about the admittedly real problem of business’ encroachment upon democracy, but never think about returning the “favor” and bringing some democracy to business. Even when some of us try to introduce the idea that you needn’t leave democracy at home when you go off to work in the morning, we’re just met with blank stares.

    The assumption that “democracy” is something that participate in and enjoy (or are denied) is something that happens only at home, etc, is so deeply engrained that people that are otherwise passionate about this topic just can’t get their head around what it might be like if your workplace was organized politically like your home town. But that in fact is what I & my coworkers experience (at Equal Exchange, http://www.equalexchange.coop).

    We elect a board of directors from amongst our own ranks (I’m one). The Board hires and supervises the top manager(s), like a city manager. The manager in turn runs the business, but always accountable to the board, who in turn is accountable to the “citizenship”, ie the worker owners.

    It can be done, really, and it gives you a whole new experience of, and appreciation for, what democracy can be.

    Rodney North

    worker-owner, Board Director


  • PaulK

    Sounds nice. Do you use single transferable vote elections?

  • jazzman

    I now live in Massachusetts and have always lived in a chartered city here. I have been to City Council meetings when they were called by special warrant and citizens were allowed to voice an opinion but all voting was left to the city councilors. I have never attended a MA town meeting and wondered if they are like Vermont’s annual ones – held on town meeting day where my experience was limited to sparsely populated towns (PaulK above) I always vote and believe we get what we deserve whether my choice wins or loses, my power is arguing with whomever I can for my philosophy and the candidate whom I believe best embodies it. See my exchanges with rc21 in the ROS predatory politics thread.



  • As I listen to the show, and Ms. Guinier’s point about the need for a kind of education to prepare the citizens for responsible, meaningful participation, I’m reminded of another piece of the puzzle of our democratic workplace “experiment”.

    That is for years now we’ve realized that to pull off this idea we would need to constantly reflect upon what makes for a fair & useful democratic process (and that there is a real set of responsibilities for the “worker-citizens”) and create an orientation and education system for ourselves and our newer members.

    Another aspect of this is that is exciting, and quite unlike typical civic democracy, is the fact that though we meet as “worker-citizens” only every 2 months, we work with each other all day, every day, AND some of us who “lead” in our governing bodies, usually do not lead during the work day. But whereas some would expect this to lead to paralysis it has instead lead – gradually – to a kind of atmosphere of mutual respect, because while you may be the “boss” in one moment or situation, the table will be turned sooner or later, and the other person may be your boss.

    Consequently, I believe people are much more likely to be on their best behavior all the time. Conversely, in the typical workplace, where power pretty much just flows downward, and never upward, those with the power all too often abuse it, as they know there’s no opportunity for response or push-back.

  • (I’m guessing PaulK was asking me “Do you use single transferable vote elections? “)

    Yes. We do sometimes, but we call it “Instant Run-off voting” (tell me if there not in fact the same thing). We also use “weighted” voting. It depends upon the number of candidates and the number of open seats in a given election.

  • PaulK


    I only vote because my God requires me to be faithful, even against overwhelming odds.

    I agree that I need to vote. If we all have that philosophy we’ll get good leadership, although looking at the last election an awful lot of people had a good philosophy and got mostly crooks again at the federal level.

  • PaulK


    Instant runoff voting is for single offices only. Single transferable votes also work on legislatures, boards of directors, any plurality of elected officials.

    Instant runoff voting means that one person gets to be the boss. That’s great if you’ve got a kingdom, but one person rule can be a bit unstable if you sometimes elect a bozo.

    Single transferable voting (voting by number, 1,2,3.., choice voting) means that if your first choice wins, that winner’s overflow votes are then transfered to people’s second choices. Likewise if your candidate is clearly at the back of the pack, she/he is out and your vote transfers to perhaps your third choice. In the end you usually elect someone that you like, and almost never the lesser of two evils.

  • PaulK

    I dream of starting a company, and electing a board of directors from:

    The investors

    the workers

    the customers

    the company’s innovators, and

    the neighbors

    The tools for electing such a board of directors are:

    A single election for all of the directors, using the single transferable vote. This allows for interesting investor/worker coalitions.

    Paying random juries of customers to cast votes

  • By your description STV is what we’re using when we’re trying to fill more than one seat at a time (which is what happens at each Board election as at least two seats are up each time). Don’t know how we got the terms confused.

    When we’ve 3 or more candidates for 1 seat (which happens occassionally) we use weighted ballots. You rank your candidates (and you needn’t name all of them if you don’t wish to). With, say, 4 candidates your 1st choice gets 4 pts, your 2nd choice gets 3 pts and so on. The top vote getter wins.

    As for your dream – sounds what they call a “multi-stakeholder cooperative”, some of which exists in Quebec. And in the States there is at least one hybrid worker-consumer co-op (Weaver Street co-op in Carrboro, NC). The workers & the consumers each elect 1/2 the Board.

    And there’s no need to pay random juries of customers to cast votes, as there is already a 150 year+ long tradition of consumer cooperatives where they’re the owners and vote on a one person/one vote basis. see http://www.ncba.coop

  • jazzman

    I don’t know why my post lost the middle section last night but it was supposed to read thus: (apologies to PaulK)

    I now live in Massachusetts and have always lived in a chartered city here. I have been to City Council meetings when they were called by special warrant and citizens were allowed to voice an opinion but all voting was left to the city councilors. I have never attended a MA town meeting and wondered if they are like Vermont’s annual ones – held on town meeting day where my experience was limited to sparsely populated towns (PaulK above) I always vote and believe we get what we deserve whether my choice wins or loses, my power is arguing with whomever I can for my philosophy and the candidate whom I believe best embodies it. See my exchanges with rc21 in the ROS predatory politics thread.



  • jazzman

    Last try:

    I now live in Massachusetts and have always lived in a chartered city here. I have been to City Council meetings when they were called by special warrant and citizens were allowed to voice an opinion but all voting was left to the city councilors. I have never attended a MA town meeting and wondered if they are like Vermont’s annual ones – held on town meeting day where my experience was limited to sparsely populated towns (less than 1000 residents.) I found this link which describes Massachusetts town meetings.

    FWIW http://www.sec.state.ma.us/cis/cistwn/twnidx.htm

    I still think with the pace and structure of modern US society, this form of government is unwieldy depending of the town’s population (Arlington has over 40K people.).Home rule ballot initiatives (such as a proposition 2 property tax override) are a workable compromise with pro/con opinions (no arguing at city council) just statements and rebuttal if the chairperson allows.

    The whole democratic system needs an overhaul as was demonstrated on a national level in 2000 and 2004 – citizens suspect skullduggery and worse. If faith in the system is compromised then people doubt if their vote counts and tend to say “the fix is in” so why bother voting. (see PaulK above) I always vote and believe we get what we deserve whether my choice wins or loses, my power is arguing with whomever I can for my philosophy and the candidate whom I believe best embodies it. See my exchanges with rc21 in the ROS predatory politics thread.



  • jazzman

    I used a “less than symbol” which the page interpreter mistook for a text modifying character – this system needs a preview function.

    Thanks for your patience – again apoligies to PaulK

  • jazzman

    To ALL concerned with democracy and especially Peter Bradley who wrote: How about some investigative reporting on voting machines BEFORE the election?

    I just saw HBO’s documentary “Hacking Democracy” last night and it echoed the last paragraph of my fitfully posted comments this morning.(My apologies for apoligies) It will be re-aired Sunday and Tuesday morning at 9:00 AM For those of you who don’t get HBO there is a good review and comment at Computerworld.com – it’s worth your while.


  • A few thoughts of civil disobedience from Wikiquote by Henry David Thoreau.

    And a few more from Jim Hightower’s The Hightower Lowdown.

    Hightower Lowdown excerpt:

    …And here’s a creative idea from Garret Keizer. I have no idea who he is, but he wrote a punchy piece in the October issue of Harper’s Magazine that I like and that Lowdowners might want to embrace. He’s calling for a general strike. Not by unions, but by us-you and me. As a symbolically appropriate day, he suggests the first Tuesday of November, the traditional date for our elections – this year, Nov. 6. He dubs it “The Feast of the Hanging Chads.”

    A general strike means that We The People, as many of us as possible, would disobey the inept, corrupt, undemocratic (add your own adjective here) system by withholding our presence at for least one day. Don’t go to work. Stay home. Better yet, take some political action. Also, don’t go to the mall, the supermarket, or the bank; don’t use your credit card or make any commercial transaction. This would be the ultimate affront to the corporate president who so pathetically told us after 9/11 that our highest patriotic response to the attack was to “go shopping.” So don’t fly, use your cell phone (hard, I know), watch TV, or otherwise participate. Sometimes, silence is the loudest sound of all. As Keizer says, “As long as we’re willing to go on with our business, Bush and Cheney will feel free to go on with their coup.”

    On one level, the strike is against the war, against Bush thumbing his nose at the American majority that has already emphatically said – OUT! – and against the Democratic leadership that can’t seem to muster the will to rein in the Bush administration. On another level, however, this is a strike for the Constitution, a strike against the betrayal of the rule of law and our democratic ideals. It’s a strike for the America we thought this was. It’s an affirmation that the people are the only “larger force” that can stop the BushCheney coup and make America whole again.



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  • Gianpaolo Baiocchi was recently in Chicago to help the 49th ward begin a participatory budgeting process. http://today.brown.edu/node/10575

    Coincidentally, the BC referendum on STV came up just two weeks ago, and failed (with substantially less support than it had when this interview was made.)

    Perhaps you can do a follow-up to this episode sometime soon?

  • Do we need a Referendum For A New Democracy?

    Are you concerned about the future of democracy? Do you feel democracy is under attack by extreme greed in countries around the world? Are you sick and tired of: living in fear, corporate greed, growing police state, government for the rich, working more but having less?

    Can we use both elections and random selection (in the way we select government officials) to rid democracy of undue influence by extreme wealth and wealth-dominated mass media campaigns?

    The world’s first democracy (Athenian democracy, 600 B.C.) used both elections and random selection. Even Aristotle (the cofounder of Western thought) promoted the use random selection as the best way to protect democracy. The idea of randomly selecting (after screening) juries remains from Athenian democracy, but not randomly selecting (after screening) government officials. Why is it used only for individual justice and not also for social justice? Who wins from that? …the extremely wealthy?

    What is the best way to combine elections and random selection to protect democracy in today’s world? Can we use elections as the way to screen candidates, and random selection as the way to do the final selection? Who wins from that? …the people?