Straw Polls


Published in 12 Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues 791 (2002)


A key measure of the democratic quality of a political community is how its members vote. The design and implementation of voting arrangements can illuminate the nature, purposes, and even potential of a community of citizens. Voting is, at the very least, used to sort out and implement preferences. Voting processes help in sorting out winners from losers and thereby provide a presumptively fair method for the implementation of public policy. At the same time, voting in a democratic policy is a coercive act. Voters are not merely expressing preferences; they are acting in order to transform their preferences into policy. How ought we to think about this coercive aspect of voting? The subject of my essay is one narrow aspect of this larger puzzle, that is, the consideration of a particular voting device--the straw poll--and its potential impact upon democratic decision-making. The puzzle of voting as a democratic method of deciding in political communities that interests me here is this: How much difference does it make, and ought it to make, whether voters who make their views known in a particular decision-making episode know of the preferences of others? And from a practical political standpoint, the interdependence of decision-makers' preferences is a ubiquitous feature of politics, affecting logrolling, negotiations, and various aspects of political strategy. My basic normative claim is that to the extent that a political community ought to value the preferences, thoughts, and ideas of others, it ought to reflect upon community members' preferences before finally deciding. In discussions of participatory democracy, this other-regardingness is usually dealt with by some sort of "deliberation." Another way--more mechanical, but more realistic as a component of a decision-making process--is through the mechanism of a straw poll.


Constitutional Law | Law and Politics | Public Law and Legal Theory | State and Local Government Law

Date of this Version

January 2002