What would Americans really think about possible reforms to our democracy and electoral processes if they had a chance to weigh the options under good conditions? Researchers James Fishkin, Alice Siu, and Larry Diamond of the Stanford Deliberative Democracy Lab (DDL), in collaboration with Helena and various partners, have just conducted a national Deliberative Poll® to find out.
America in One Room: Democratic Reform is the third installment of America in One Room (A1R), a Deliberative Polling® project designed to explore Americans’ perspectives on some of our country’s most contentious issues, including voter access, non-partisan election administration, protection against election interference, Supreme Court reform, and more. With the 2024 election on the horizon, the findings from this comprehensive deliberative poll have the potential to reshape the discourse surrounding these important topics.
In a joint press release, DDL shared that poll results showed increased movement toward bipartisan support on a set of previously polarizing issues that are already beginning to drive political debates and candidate platforms as we head into Election 2024.
Before deliberations, participants across party lines reported feeling dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in the U.S., with 65% of Democrats, 81% of Republicans, and 72% of participants overall reporting dissatisfaction. However, deliberating together about potential reforms reduced discontent, with the overall percentage of dissatisfaction dropping 18 points to 54%, and party dissatisfaction dropping 11 points for Democrats and 31 points for Republicans.
Across specific democratic reform topics, there were often strong party differences before deliberation. Discourse resulted in significant depolarization and increased cross-party support on several key issues, including voting rights and ballot access.
Below, Fishkin, the director of DDL; Diamond, the Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at FSI; and Siu, a senior research scholar and the associate director of DDL, reflect on their findings and what the results indicate about the path forward in strengthening American democracy.
What were your biggest takeaways from this iteration of America in One Room (A1R)? Were you surprised by any of the results?
Jim Fishkin: In normal times, the issues of how we register to vote, how and when we cast our ballots, and how we can avoid partisan interference in the elections would not be big issues. But we live in a period of fierce partisan division about our elections, and I was gratified to see this affirmation of basic American values about the non-partisan guardrails of democracy. The movement by Republicans on issues like voting rights for felons was large and surprising. The willingness of Democrats to embrace audits with random samples of ballots and paper records of the votes confirmed by the voter (initially Republican positions) also showed the capacity of dialogue to move opinion.
Larry Diamond: One of the biggest takeaways was the consistent majority support for Ranked Choice Voting in all of its different potential applications. After deliberating, majorities of our sample consistently supported the use of RCV for all kinds of elections — local, state, and national, and in both primaries and in general elections. While Republicans were more wary of this reform, up to 45% of Republicans supported some use of it, for example, in local elections, and 43% of Republicans liked the "final four" or "final five" version, as in Alaska, where there is a single non-partisan primary and then the top four finishers contest in a general election using RCV. I was also struck by the openness to some other electoral reform proposals and the strong gains in support for these (including proportional representation) after deliberation. I was not surprised by how far apart Democrats and Republicans remained on the Electoral College — there is an obvious divergence in partisan interest there.
Alice Siu: We can never predict what participants' opinions will be after deliberation. What surprised me the most was the increase in satisfaction with democracy after deliberation. Prior to deliberation, only 27% of participants expressed satisfaction with the current way democracy is working in the US. After deliberation, this percentage increased to 54%. Furthermore, when looking at satisfaction levels by political parties, we found that Republicans' satisfaction increased from 18 to 50% and Democrats increased from 34 to 46%. We have to keep in mind that participants deliberated together for 12 hours over the course of a weekend or a few weekday evenings. Together after engaging in thoughtful and structured deliberation, they developed a greater satisfaction with democracy, just showing that what our society needs are opportunities to talk and listen to each other.
What does this poll show about the American public and our political and civic discourse that the headlines miss?
Diamond: Over and over (this is now our third "America in One Room"), we find that ordinary Americans are hungry for thoughtful and civil discussions with their fellow citizens about the issues we face. And it is possible to have these discussions if you set good conditions and ensure that everyone has access to the same body of balanced and objective information, with a fair presentation of the pro and con arguments for each proposal. Americans do narrow their differences when they can deliberate in this way. But more than that — and quite stunning to us — they also became more hopeful about American democracy. The percentage of Americans who say they are satisfied with the way democracy is working in the US increased from 27% before deliberation to 45% after. And satisfaction among Republicans doubled — from 24% to 50%.
Siu: Headlines often lead with how polarized our society is, but what they fail to tell us is that if people had the opportunity to engage with diverse others, people are capable of having respectful conversations. In fact, after deliberation, agreement with the statement 'I respect their point of view though it is different from mine' increased from 57 to 75%. Among Democrats, this percentage increased from 49 to 73%, and among Republicans, this increased from 73 to 84%. The headlines amplify the perceived polarization in our society, but what it misses is how deliberation can bring our society together in a respectful way.
Fishkin: Dialogue across differences can activate the fundamental values of our democracy and show the way for constructive solutions. The increased support for ranked choice voting and for non-partisan redistricting commissions was particularly noteworthy.
What implications might this installment of A1R have for the 2024 U.S. presidential election and democratic reform initiatives on the ballot?
Fishkin: This project identifies practical reforms that have a claim on the values and concerns of the American public if they focus on the issues. I think it can be invoked for non-partisan redistricting commissions, for ranked-choice voting in various contexts, for ethics reform of the Supreme Court, and a host of other issues.
Diamond: It may not have much impact on the 2024 presidential election, but it will give momentum to reformers who are working to expand voting rights, ensure a more transparent non-partisan administration of elections, and institute Ranked Choice Voting and related electoral reforms. I think our results show that people can be persuaded, even across party lines, and it points to certain types of reforms that are more broadly appealing than others. As we analyze the transcripts of the discussions, we will also learn what kinds of arguments resonated with voters and which did not.
Siu: One of the striking results from this installment of A1R is people's concerns about voting accessibility. From restoring voting rights to citizens with felony convictions to strengthening federal standards for election machines and requirements for reporting security incidents, we hope that policymakers see the priorities that registered voters have for ensuring that our elections are fair and transparent.
How can this research be used to help reduce polarization moving forward and create meaningful change in our public dialogues?
Siu: This installment of A1R, along with the previous A1R Deliberative Polls, have shown that deliberation can, in fact, reduce political and affective polarization. We must all understand that for our society and for any society around the world, listening to each other, whether we agree or disagree, is really not an option.
Diamond: We now have a second major demonstration in the US of the dramatic utility of the Stanford Online Deliberation Platform, developed by Stanford Professor Ashish Goel and his Crowdsourced Democracy Team. This was the second "America in One Room" to deploy this platform very successfully. When people can deliberate online, it cuts costs dramatically, and yet still, it brings about reductions in polarization and constructive changes in public opinion on many issues. Now the challenge is to figure out how we can scale up deliberation to much larger numbers of Americans and apply the tool to a wider range of issues in jurisdictions across the US as well as globally. International demand for the framework and tools of the Deliberative Democracy Lab keeps growing.
Fishkin: With our technology, we have hopes of spreading this kind of dialogue. I was struck that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all supported fostering deliberation on contentious topics.