In our busy lives, it's seldom possible to become adequately informed on basic issues facing us as a country.
To address this challenge, Carnegie Mellon researchers are bringing citizens together at the local, regional and statewide levels to help enhance voter knowledge of key issues and improve decision-making — through what's called the Southwestern Pennsylvania Program for Deliberative Democracy (SPPDD).
The initiative seeks to help maintain the health and vitality of modern democracy in America through the use of deliberative polls and other forms of democratic dialogue.
"We provide citizens with well-designed and balanced background information and an opportunity to participate in structured, moderated conversations," said the program's co-director Robert Cavalier, a teaching professor of philosophy at the university. "All of this has the potential to make our democracy stronger, more deliberative — in a way envisioned by some of our founding fathers. All of it bodes well for a more engaged citizenry and a more robust democratic process."
Most recently, Carnegie Mellon was one of four host sites for the statewide "Deliberative Poll® on the Issue of Marriage in America." Even for topics like marriage for same-sex couples, deliberative polling can be a useful strategy, providing an indication of what an entire community would think if it had the opportunity to engage in intense deliberation on a particular issue.
Prior to attending the local event, participants were selected from Allegheny County voter registration records. They prepared by reading background materials on the historical, religious and societal aspects of marriage. On the day of the poll, they gathered to discuss and deliberate the topic in small groups and later in a larger session with experts. At the end of the day, they filled out a detailed survey.
“The results of this survey will be passed on to members of our state legislature,” Cavalier said, adding, “and what’s most remarkable is that we had 250 citizens across the state talk about sex, religion and politics for over five hours in a civilized and thoughtful way!”
The democracy project has been a passion of Cavalier's for 10 years. "I've been fortunate to be in such an interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial environment as Carnegie Mellon because this environment has allowed me to work on the models and to apply them at the campus level and beyond."
According to student affairs coordinator Joanna Dickert, the new partnership is designed to engage more students in the deliberative polling process by using it as a tool for campus discussions and decision making.
"We hope to create opportunities for students to realize the benefits of the diversity found within the campus community via their participation in deliberative events," Dickert explained. "Additionally, we hope that participation in such events allows students to cultivate deliberative skills in ways that promote a sense of social responsibility and assist in their preparation for a life of leadership and impact."
The new partnership continues to support two yearly student internships in deliberative democracy. Cavalier noted the interns have benefitted greatly from their experiences, going on to law schools and community work.
The program received a 2008 Good Government Award from the League of Women Voters. Cavalier said, "It's a sign of the kind of recognition we're getting, a sign that we're building a national reputation."