By John Gastil / From The Centre Daily Times:

As the presidential election lurches toward its conclusion, one can’t help but despair. Fact-checkers find speeches littered with falsehoods. The media bat at shiny new gaffes like distracted cats. Candidates posture for a slim majority. All this detracts from the more profound purpose of voting — namely, to give the public an opportunity to study and weigh in on our most pressing issues.

Even if 2012 proves to be a democratic election, it will certainly not prove a deliberative one. This idea of “deliberating” together has a long history, which resonates with the best aspirations of our nation’s founders and the historic practice of self-government, from the councils of the Iroquois to the rhetoric of ancient Greece.

At Penn State, many colleagues and I aim to recapture that idea through work in the Democracy Institute and one of its partners, the Center for Democratic Deliberation. Some center researchers, myself included, study modern innovations in public deliberation, and we find that looking at these innovations gives us hope.

One of the most promising new institutions is the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review, which a bipartisan legislature made a permanent part of that state’s electoral process in 2011. The review convenes a representative random sample of 24 citizens for a weeklong deliberation on a state ballot measure.

Citizen panelists interrogate advocates, opponents and background witnesses; and they scrutinize evidence and arguments to produce a one-page statement. Their analysis then appears in the official Voters’ Pamphlet, which the secretary of state mails to every registered Oregon voter.

What is the consequence of such a process?

Research from 2010 showed that the reviews had a significant impact on the wider electorate by helping them sort through the complex questions on their ballot. To see the power of these reviews, let’s consider the two panels held this year.

On one measure, the panelists found that the proposed change to state tax law could not guarantee the net increase in education funding it promised. With none of the malice generated by a biased press, however, the panel majority still endorsed the measure, which panelists deemed superior to the status quo.

The other Oregon panel tackled the controversy of establishing private casinos. Well-polished arguments for the measure by savvy advocates did not hold up under weeklong scrutiny. In the end, panelists moved against the measure, owing to doubts about their benefits and certainty about their adverse effect on tribal revenues.

The idea behind the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review is simple. When we give citizens a chance to deliberate and inform one another, they usually yield well-reasoned and compassionate judgments. Giving power to the people — but in a way that focuses on deliberation — can lend legitimacy to both government and its decisions. This, after all, is the logic behind our jury system, but this logic can extend far beyond the courthouse.

For example, in British Columbia, Canada, the parliament empowered citizens there to draft new election laws, which were then put to a province-wide vote. Californians have experimented with drafting an initiative via large-scale deliberative polling, and Iceland re-imagined its national constitution via online citizen deliberation. Participatory budgeting, in which the local public conceives, establishes and assesses major public projects, has spread from Brazil to Chicago, New York and California.

As illuminated by work at the Center for Democratic Deliberation and the Democracy Institute, public reason and common purpose cemented the foundations of American democracy. Grounded in those traditions, Penn State researchers are now helping us see beyond our impoverished modern presidential campaign to a richer way of talking and working together that will not merely judge victors but render meaningful judgments.

John Gastil is director of the Penn State Democracy Institute and professor and head of the communication arts and sciences department at Penn State. He can be reached at jgastil@la.psu.eduVisit the Democracy Institute website at for more information.