In June of 2023, Helena deployed its third installment of America in One Room to pulse a representative sample of the voting electorate on the topic of democratic reform.
On the docket were a slate of policy initiatives aimed at making structural changes to American Democracy – ranging from expanding voter registration and access to the abolition of the electoral college to ranked choice voting.
Heading into a presidential election cycle that follows one of the most historically divided in U.S. history, the results proved that American citizens can come together to discuss nuanced policy areas with depth and civility, and arrive at conclusions that are not nearly as divided as news cycles would suggest.
A1R: Democratic Reform ‘s findings and methodology offer a critical roadmap for addressing polarization and revitalizing democracy – and testify to the potential of informed and engaged citizens in shaping a more united and effective democratic society.
On November 2, International IDEA released its annual report, The Global State of Democracy. It painted a grim picture. For the sixth consecutive year–the longest since their records began in 1975–they found democracy to be in decline. According to the Economist Group’s Democracy Index, for the seventh consecutive year, the United States has a “flawed democracy.” The V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report 2023 might be the most alarming: global democracy at its lowest point since 1986, with 72% of the world’s population under autocratic rule.
Healthy democracies are built on civic participation, high quality public discourse, and institutional trust. When these deteriorate, the political system deteriorates. One need look no further than the contested 2020 election to understand the ramifications of political disenfranchisement born from deep-seated institutional mistrust, corrupted information streams, and a breakdown in public dialogue.
It is no surprise, then, that a 2022 Pew Research survey found that 62% of US citizens surveyed said that they were dissatisfied with the way democracy was working, and, perhaps more tellingly, 71% said they felt powerless to do anything about it. According to a separate study, trust in the government is at its lowest point since the data was first collected in 1958: an average of just 16% of respondents trusted the government “to do what is right just about always/ most of the time.” Unsurprisingly, polarization is on the rise.
In 2022, Democrats and Republicans were both three times more likely to view the opposing party unfavorably than they were in 1994. And a 2020 paper out of Brown identified the US as having the fastest rise in polarization of 12 countries measured.
The path we are on is clearly untenable. As the U.S. grapples with an increasingly fragile democratic state, legislators have passed a slate of democratic reform measures aimed at addressing the operating framework of democratic governance itself. In just the past year, 37 states have passed laws regarding voting registration (enacted restrictions, 24 expanded access), and 14 have either passed or proposed bills that would institute some form of ranked-choice voting for elections.
In an era of widespread and deepening polarization, making structural changes to democracy presents a formidable challenge. Understanding the diverse viewpoints of constituents will be an integral component in building more resilient governance.
In 2023, Helena convened a third installment of America in One Room, its landmark Deliberative Democracy project, this time focused entirely on Democratic Reform initiatives. A1R: Democratic Reform pulsed a representative sample of the voting electorate on key policy areas and provided a forum for participants to actively engage with proposals in fact-rich, respectful dialogue with their fellow citizens. The results provided a snapshot of where Americans stand on key issues ranging from voting access to campaign finance to the electoral college.
James Madison once remarked: “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.”
A1R is predicated on the idea that while the issue of democratic decline is urgent, it is not inevitable – and that informed communication, robust civic engagement, and an empowered electorate are fundamental to counteracting it. To create better discourse and accurately discern the will of the people under the best possible conditions, the project utilizes a methodology called Deliberative Polling. The process was invented by Helena Member and Stanford professor Jim Fishkin as a way to combat what Madison famously called “the mischiefs of faction”.
Fishkin was frustrated by what he perceived as “the splintering of the public sphere into innumerable filter bubbles, where we don’t have the shared process by which arguments offered are answered and people just consort with the like-minded.” Deliberative Polling furnishes the opportunity to bridge these divides. The process relies on four core mechanisms. First, a scientifically accurate representative sample of the voting electorate is convened. Those participants are given vetted, bipartisan information on the policy issues at hand. They then engage in moderated discussions with a diverse group of fellow citizens. Following these discussions, they have the opportunity to ask questions of issue-area experts. To measure change, their opinions are recorded before and after participating in the deliberative process.
Since 1988, Deliberative Polls have been conducted 120 times in 50 countries, often leading to direct policy outcomes. The methodology has resulted in the desegregation of Roma-only schools in Bulgaria. It has been used to amend the constitution in Mongolia, (where Deliberative Polling is now a required component of the constitutional amendment process). The convening of a Deliberative Poll by Texas utility companies in 1996 led to the state’s widespread transition to renewables, ultimately making Texas first in the nation in the production of wind energy.
Persuaded by the methodology’s historical impact, Helena launched what was then the largest Deliberative Poll in history in 2019. Executed in collaboration with Stanford’s Deliberative Democracy Lab and NORC at the University of Chicago, the original America in One Room brought together a stratified random sample of 523 registered voters from across the country to address broad, national issues like immigration policy, health care, and the economy. The event countered the prevailing notion that Americans are irreconcilably divided, resulting in significant shifts in affective and issue-based polarization, as well as increased faith in democracy. A1R 2019 garnered widespread media attention. It was covered by outlets including Tthe New York Times, CNN, FiveThirtyEight, the BBC, Vanity Fair, and The National Interest. The project inspired a podcast and an eight-part Snapchat documentary. Former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton cited it as a cure for an ailing democracy.
In 2022, America in One Room: Climate and Energy recruited an even larger sample: 962 participants. Helena’s first issue-specific poll utilized an innovative AI moderator to meet citizens remotely. The results showed convergence in participants’ opinions on a number of proposals – including across-the-board support for nearly all proposals to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and provided a schematic for future US action on climate change. In public discussions, policymakers including Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Lindsay Graham and Congressmen John Curtis and Rho Khanna engaged with the results.
A1R: Climate and Energy not only validated the depolarizing effects of the original A1R, but its technology platform also demonstrated how scalable the process can be, opening the doors for Deliberative Polls that are timelier, more precise, and potentially even more impactful.
America in One Room: Democratic Reform is the second issue-specific A1R, and the second to use the remote, AI-moderated system. With so many eyes on the health and future of our democracy, it offered a timely, necessary overview of the will of the American people.
Like its predecessors, A1R: Democratic Reform began with the selection of its participants – nearly 600 citizen delegates selected across subcategories including political affiliation, race, age, gender, and geographic location as a statistically accurate microcosm of the American electorate.
The participants filled out an extensive questionnaire to record their initial opinions on the policy reform proposals that would be under discussion. A control group did the same. A total of 76 policy proposals under discussion fell into the following categories:
After completing the survey and prior to the deliberations, participants were given objective, balanced briefing documents vetted by a 17-member bipartisan expert advisory Council on the issue areas. These encompassed in-depth breakdowns of each proposal, complete with arguments for and arguments against.
The event itself took place over two weeks in June, with each deliberator participating in four small group discussions and four plenary sessions with policy experts.. The small group deliberations were conducted over the Stanford Online Deliberation Platform, with an AI moderator that promoted engagement and civil discussion, eliminated bias, ensured all important points on issues have been addressed, and encouraged the group to formulate thoughtful, considered questions for the speakers in the plenary sessions.
To conclude, the participants took the same questionnaire again; changes in opinion were analyzed.
Results showed increased movement toward bipartisan support on previously divisive policy issues.
Democrats and Republicans moved similarly on proposals to expand voting access. A majority of participants supported online voter registration, and a supermajority endorsed extending voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals. There was strong support across the political spectrum for the value, “Making sure everyone who wants to vote can do so.” In addition, participants expressed bipartisan support for protections against interference or intimidation of voters or vote counters, as well as for a nonpartisan commission to redraw congressional districts.
The deliberators closely aligned on many nonpartisan issues, as well, including majority support for 18-year term limits for Supreme Court Justices and super majority support for the disclosure of large donors. When it came to election system reform, ranked choice voting (which has already been adopted in Maine, Alaska, and Nevada) became the most popular alternative to our current “first past the post” system. It was supported by an overall majority of deliberators in all six scenarios for which it was proposed.
Tellingly, and encouragingly, there were similar improvements and consensus on the questions that centered around mutual respect and understanding. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all increasingly agreed with the statement “I respect their [others’] point of view though it is different from mine,” which ended with a supermajority of 75%. And an even larger percentage agreed with the statement, “I would be willing to compromise to find a solution we can both support.”
These changes reflect a critical design feature of A1R – it offers a vital space for participants to discuss the real-world impact of policies on their lives, and to learn from each other’s experiences. The A1R experience illuminates what one participant referred to as Americans’ “amazing ability to be critical, empathetic thinkers.” In the words of another attendee, the process underscores the importance of “being willing to hold your ideas loosely and do an intelligent analysis when someone doesn’t agree with you” and teaches participants that, “if you get a chance to hear someone else’s perspective, take it! And don’t seek so much to be understood as to understand.”
Full results here.
Perhaps most illuminating were the responses to a more general question: whether the deliberators were satisfied with American democracy. Before the event, only 27% of participants agreed with that statement. After the event: 45%. Republican satisfaction more than doubled from 19% before the event to 50% after. And in a striking instance of depolarization, the difference between Democrats and Republicans on that question narrowed from 15% to 4.
A1R: Democratic Reform provided a more accurate picture of where Americans stood on a panoply of initiatives driving political debates and candidate platforms in the 2024 election cycle. It also demonstrated that democratic backsliding and polarization are not calcified or unavoidable; they can be remedied by improving our civic institutions.
At its core, the America in One Room is designed to help citizens find their voice, value, and agency in democratic processes. The initiative equips citizens with high quality information and provides a forum for civil discourse with peers of diverse opinions and balanced, issue-area experts. Post A1R, participants feel more connected, more unified, and more heard. In deployment after deployment, they report a sense of empowerment post-deliberation and go on to take part in democratic processes more actively – suggesting the change-making potential of an engaged and motivated constituency.
Covering the Democratic Reform effort the journal Democracy, writer James Traub observed, “The partisan hatred that increasingly poisons our politics and endangers our democracy would seem to doom in advance any hopes for a more participatory politics.” Yet America in One Room has “shown that, under the right conditions, deliberation causes people to listen to one another, and even respect one another, despite profound differences of opinion. Deliberation blunts polarization. A more deliberative politics might be the precondition for a more participatory democracy.”
Commenting on The New York Times coverage of America in One Room in 2019, President Obama tweeted, “Here’s an interesting read—a reminder that behind every opinion lies a human being with real experiences and a story to tell. Sometimes we’ll agree and sometimes we won’t, but if we want our democracy [to] work, listening to each other isn’t optional.”
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