There’s more to democracy than polling day: Citizen engagement between elections

Updated: 15 February 2013

David M. Farrell
University College Dublin

A theme common to all the presentations at the AEC's November 2012 electoral research forum was citizen engagement. This can be considered in a number of different respects, among them:

  • Reforming the voter enrolment process to ensure that all citizens are given the opportunity to vote;
  • Working with the established media to ensure full and effective communication of campaign themes during elections;
  • Making effective use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) to engage with voters;
  • Making appropriate adaptations to campaign practices and messages to engage with younger voters.

Each of these points was covered in this two-day forum (together with a fascinating session on Australia's use of compulsory voting as a vote mobilization device), and each has a vital role in the increasingly difficult challenge of trying to maintain high levels of citizen engagement. These points also share in common a primary focus on the election campaign period, on seeking to engage citizens in the lead up to and during a general election. The fact that the AEC should feature these themes in an electoral research forum is entirely consistent with its mission, which is focused on what the electoral commissioner refers to as 'the three Es' for a healthy democracy – enrolment, elections and education.

The starting point for this paper is an interest in what happens in the period between elections, on what can be done to engage with citizens after the heat of the campaign has died down and before the temperature starts rising for the next campaign. My interest here is in how engaged citizens are in the democratic process; in what steps are being, or can be, taken to engage the citizens.

This is a presentation in three main parts:

  • I begin with the negatives; the theme of electoral change, party change, and the future of representative democracy. As we shall see, the story in much of the academic literature appears to be a pretty doom-laden one;
  • Next I focus on the theme of change and adaptation, the aim being to show that perhaps things are not quite as negative as they might seem;
  • Finally, I outline some recent areas of reform that, I believe, address the dual need for institutional and behavioural change – people's conventions. Initiatives like this represent significant new ways of engaging with citizens in-between elections.

1 Democracies in trouble?

In much of the political science debate today (most notably perhaps in the field of party politics), there is a growing concern over the state of representative democracy. The most influential work in this area is by the late Peter Mair, the leading scholar of political parties and one of the most significant scholars in the field of comparative politics generally. In his final years Mair wrote a series of essays that painted an increasingly depressing picture.1 For the most part, he is referring to well known trends, but it is how he pieces together the evidence (together with his undoubted seniority in the field) that makes his case so compelling.

In the first instance, Mair writes of a growing disconnect between citizens and our institutions of representative democracy as manifested most particularly in the following trends: declining electoral turnout, rising voter volatility, declining party identification, and declining numbers of party members – each of which he tracks with his typical clarity and thoroughness.2 Mair's view is that all of these trends (and more) are powerful indicators of a growing disconnect between citizens and democracy – of citizen withdrawal from democracy. As he put it, the conclusion is 'unambiguous'; 'citizens are heading for the exits of the national political arena'.

For Mair, none of this is helped by the fact that politicians also seem to be withdrawing from our representative institutions of democracy – the second main theme reporting on how democracies are supposedly in trouble.

Building and developing on his earlier work with Richard Katz on the cartelization of party politics3, Mair outlines two sets of changes in party politics that indicate a similar cutting loose from electoral politics by the political elite, which he summarizes as identity and locational shifts. The shift in identity relates to the reduction in ideological polarization of party systems together with a bi-polarization of party competition (to offer voters choices between alternative coalition governments), and the willingness to accept all parties – however, extreme the bed fellows – into government, so that: '[a]s more or less all parties become coalitionable, coalition-making has become promiscuous'.

Locational shifts refers to parties moving along the continuum from being defined primarily as social actors to becoming, in effect, 'state actors'. Indicators of this include: the sidelining of party activists, weakening of wider community and social ties (e.g. sister or affiliated organizations) associated particularly with mass parties, growing reliance on public funds and state support, the growing regulation of their activities (and organization) giving them quasi-official status, and giving greater priority to the role of parties 'as governing (as opposed to representative) agencies'.

Both sets of changes (identity and locational) amount to a scenario in which 'party-voter distances have been stretched, while party-party differences have lessened', between them feeding the growing distrust of parties and political institutions by the public.

Mair draws all this together by citing Elmer Schattschneider's much quoted warning that 'modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties'.4 It is Mair's contention that the unthinkable may well be happening, that parties are failing (even if they've not as yet failed) and democracy with them, or at least democracy as we know it. In his view democracy is being 'redefined' to downplay popular sovereignty, resulting in a 'stripped down' democracy that is 'about rights rather than voice, about output rather than input'.

In short, all this suggests a pretty dismal state of affairs: a growing divide between citizens and their leaders, political parties seemingly in their death throes, and democracies shorn of their populist roots.

Mair is not alone in making this argument, though he is definitely one of the more prominent exponents. In the book I recently co-authored with Russell Dalton and Ian McAllister, Political Parties and Democratic Linkage5, we take issue with much of this. Our main points can be summarized briefly. First, regarding the issue of citizen withdrawal, the trends need to be considered in the wider context of societal change that has affected institutions beyond political parties. Societal change has contributed to a breakdown of collective identities as citizens become increasingly individualized. The Dutch political scientist Rudy Andeweg illustrates this point succinctly: 'religion is increasingly expressed outside churches, interest promotion is taken care of outside interest associations, such as trade unions, physical exercise outside sports clubs… work outside permanent employment, love outside marriage, and even gender differences are becoming divorced from sex differences'.6 Little wonder, then, why parties should have fewer members, few loyal followers, and face growing competition from other non-party actors.

Some of the concerns raised about the state of parties may reflect an underlying hankering after a supposed Golden Age of 'mass party' politics. The mass party model emphasized a loyal supporter base, the representation of particular social groups, and large mass memberships – all of these the very features that are singled out as evidence in support of the party decline thesis. But arguably this model was more an ideal typical than a widespread political reality.

Overall, there is a tendency to pay undue homage to a style of democracy that may well be past its sell-by date. The political theorist, Michael Saward makes this point when he tracks a shift from one ideal typical from of democracy, which he refers to as the 'popular mode' – the form of democracy lauded by Mair – to alternative ideal typical modes, such as 'statal' or 'reflexive' modes. Saward's point is that such a shift 'does not necessarily add up to a picture that is less democratic. It can, rather, be differently democratic'.7

2 Reform is in the air

We face something of a puzzle. In a parallel universe to the doom-laden world of many party scholars like Peter Mair, there is another body of scholars who, on the whole, view recent developments in pretty upbeat terms. For instance, as Russell Dalton and his colleagues observe: 'Although electoral participation is generally declining, participation is expanding into new forms of action' as more of us engage in new, less conventional (sometimes even unconventional) forms of political action, as more of us become what Dalton in other work refers to as 'good' citizens, seeking a more active (less passive) role in the political system, prepared to challenge (and thereby engage with) existing systems and norms.8 What all of this amounts to is evidence of a behavioural shift among (at least some) citizens, to a citizenry that is changing in its expectations of the political system and its approach to the system.

There is also growing evidence of widespread institutional reform, in large part in reaction to the growing clamour from citizens, and to a large degree driven by parties (in government). There is no shortage of examples – whether it's Austria's decision in 2008 to reduce the voting age to 16, Belgium's long road to federalization, Italy's various stages of electoral reform, or the ongoing and rather tortuous devolution agenda in the UK. The most comprehensive evidence is provided by research carried out at the European University Institute in Florence, which examines the trends across seven main dimensions of institutional reform in 18 established European democracies over a 20-year period from 1990–2010.

Table 1: Institutional reforms in Europe: 1990–2010 (number)9
  Total Substantial
Decentralization 58 20
Electoral reform 29 7
Public subsidies 28 2
Parliament reform 23 10
Suffrage access 16 1
Direct election 13 8
Direct democracy 6 3
Total 173 51

Summary indicators are provided in Table 1. What this amounts to is an average of 9.5 reforms (3 of them substantial) per country. The evidence is emphatic. As the authors of the report state: 'institutional reform is far from a rare occurrence and indeed occurs quite frequently'.

3 Is representative democracy about to take a 'deliberative turn'?

Included in the mix of institutional reforms are a series of measures that specifically cater for a citizenry more interested in political action outside of the election cycle. In countries across the globe the evolving pattern is one of 'democratic innovations'10, of institutions being designed/redesigned for citizen participation. Russell Dalton and his colleagues refer to this as a 'second wave of democratic reform', personified by the creation of new institutions and the redesign of existing ones with the principal aim of facilitating greater citizen participation.

According to the Australian National University political theorist, John Dryzek the final decade of the last millennium saw democratic theory take a 'deliberative turn'.11 The question posed in this paper is whether and to what degree this has been matched in practice?

There is no doubt that when it comes to contemporary democratic institutions things are not as they once were. But this is only to be expected 'when nineteenth-century concepts meet twenty-first century realities'.12 Institutions must change and are changing with the times (of course, in some cases more quickly than others): 'a new model of democracy is emerging'13, one that is more 'talk-centered' rather than 'election-centered', with citizens being ever more drawn into the policy process in-between elections.14

This is particularly the case with the various deliberative approaches that are being adopted to engage with citizens between elections. These can come in a range of forms – participatory budgeting, consensus conferences, citizens' juries, deliberative polls, citizens' assemblies – but what they all share in common is an ambition to allow ordinary citizens to have a say, to 'speak'15, even to 'decide'16. The precise details of how these various deliberative approaches operate is beyond the scope of this presentation, but in summary, there are a number of traits that are common to most, such as the following: the entity (jury, assembly, etc.) is established with a particular purpose in mind; it is given a clearly defined agenda; it is made clear to its members how their recommendations will be followed up on; its operation is time-delimited; its members are selected randomly (rather than elected); there is an important role for experts, not as participants, but rather as witnesses; and at the heart of the enterprise is deliberation, described aptly by James Fishkin as 'the process by which individuals sincerely weigh the merits of competing arguments in discussions together'17.

We are now entering into the world of mini-publics, of fora designed with the specific purpose of allowing ordinary citizens a say over a certain matter. For the most part, and especially until quite recently, the use of deliberation has tended to be focused on administrative or policy-related questions and often at the local level. This has also tended to be the story for the bulk of the empirical literature on deliberation – for the most part also focused on these local/sub-national cases.

While few doubt the significance of deliberative approaches in adding to politics at local level, there are real doubts over the extent to which such activities could realistically be mainstreamed – made more central to the decision-making process in our political system. In a recent paper, another Australian National University political theorist, Robert Goodin talks about the need for deliberative democracy to 'get a grip'18. But how?

The first problem is the simple issue of scale. How can small scale, carefully controlled deliberative events be scaled up to such an extent that they are taken seriously by political leaders? It's hard to demonstrate the potential national practicalities of a method designed primarily for local application, and for the most part applied in local arenas. It is no accident, therefore, why the bulk of academic attention (on the practical applications of deliberation) has tended to focus on the sub-national level, at the area in the bottom left quadrant of Figure 1. This first problem relates to the theme of geographic scope – the horizontal dimension presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The scope of deliberative approaches
Figure 1: The scope of deliberative approaches

An even more significant problem is that of legitimacy. The question can quite reasonably be posed: by what right can a small random selection of citizens be said to 'speak for' the wider body polity? Again, the best solution would appear to be one of 'scaling it up'. The most interesting work in this area is by Australian political scientists and theorists, notably John Dryzek and Robert Goodin. For instance, in his recent paper, Goodin turns the idea of 'going local' on its head, by talking of the need to 'go global', with deliberative exercises giving citizens a role as 'norm entrepreneurs', helping to set the agenda on big questions in international politics, such as environmental protection or human rights.

This suggests that there is a second dimension to scope other than just geography, which we can refer to as systemic scope, the vertical dimension in Figure 1. Systemic scope relates to how the deliberative process can be scaled up to give citizens a greater say over big questions of the moment.

In this regard, the most interesting development in recent years has been the gradual emergence of what can be referred to as 'people's conventions', which share in common the following traits:

  • They address big, national questions of constitutional/institutional design;
  • They are established by government to meet a certain objective in time-delimited fashion;
  • They are quite deliberately and distinctly treated as a supplement (rather than competitor) to the existing system of representative democracy;
  • Ordinary citizens are at their core (though on occasions working side-by-side with elected politicians);
  • For the most part, the membership is based on random selection rather than election;
  • For the most part, the outcome of their deliberations is generally clear.
Table 2: People's Conventions in the Modern Era
  Dates Title Membership Agenda
Australia Feb 1998 Constitutional Convention 38 politicians/114 citizens Australia as a Republic
British Columbia Jan–Nov 2004 Citizens' Assembly 160 citizens Electoral reform
Netherlands Mar–Nov 2006 Citizens' Forum 143 citizens Electoral reform
Ontario Sep 06–Apr 07 Citizens' Assembly 103 citizens Electoral reform
Iceland Apr–June 2011 Constitutional Council 25 citizens A new constitution
Iceland Jan–Oct 2013 Constitutional Convention 33 politicians/66 citizens Constitutional changes

One other crucial thing that they share in common can be summed up in one word – salience. They are focused on the national level (or, at least in the two Canadian cases, the equally salient provincial level), and as such are without doubt of 'first order' significance.

Of the six cases presented in Table 2, one of them (the Australian constitutional convention established by prime minister John Howard in 1998 to consider whether Australia might become a republic) did not follow the usual principles associated with deliberative processes, notably: they used election rather than random selection to pick the citizen members, and the mode of discussion followed parliamentary norms of debate and position taking rather than deliberation and dialogue. Nevertheless, the fact that ordinary citizens were included in the membership was a striking departure from previous practice for Australian constitutional review.

The membership of the 2011 Icelandic Constitutional Council was also elected. Established in the heat of the country's economic and financial meltdown, it was tasked with considering root and branch reform of the country's constitution. After four-months of intense deliberation, it produced a brand new constitution that was endorsed by a clear majority of Icelandic citizens in a referendum. As this referendum was merely advisory, we now have to see what the government and parliament will do next.

It is our next three cases that have attracted the most scholarly attention – the citizen's assemblies on electoral reform in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia (2004) and Ontario (2007) and the Dutch citizen's forum (BürgerForum) of 2006. Only ordinary citizens were involved in these cases. They were selected at random. These assemblies/forum met at weekends over a number of months: 11 months in British Columbia, eight months in Ontario and nine months in the Netherlands.

The Irish constitutional convention, which starts work in January 2013, will be given a year to consider a number of constitutional reform issues (of varying importance). The membership shall be a mix of professional politicians (one third) and randomly selected citizens (two thirds), and it will operate in a deliberative fashion. While the Irish case bears some similarity to the Australian one in mixing ordinary citizens with professional politicians, the decision to select the citizen members at random rather than by election and to seek to operate the convention along deliberative lines puts it more on a par with the Canadian and Dutch cases.

It may be pushing things to say that these six cases of people's conventions amount to a trend. But when combined with the other areas of democratic transformation summarized earlier it cannot be denied that things are changing, and the fact that gradually there are more and more cases of citizen-oriented reforms would seem to support the contention of a 'deliberative turn in practice'.

For Mark Warren processes such as this form 'a potential part of the ecology of democratic institutions'.19 They are a complement to other representative institutions, but they have a limited application. In his view, they are best aimed at certain kinds of issues: intractable and/or important problems that require careful deliberation and the seeking of board consensus; or those issues that pose a conflict of interest for elected representatives (such as electoral reform). By no means are deliberative approaches, such as people's conventions, a be all and end all; but they do represent significant additions to our repertoire of representative institutions, and they show seriousness of intent to engage with citizens more proactively in-between elections.

Conclusion: a fourth 'E' for the AEC?

What relevance does all this have for an organization like the AEC? Clearly, there is already a hugely important role for an electoral management body like the AEC to implement in terms of improving enrollment (ever more difficult in an age of increasing migration); educating voters on their rights and duties in the electoral process; and ensuring that elections are managed professionally and fairly. The 'three Es' are undoubtedly at the heart of the AEC's raison d'etre.

The question posed by this paper is whether it now might be timely to add a fourth E – relating to the theme of citizen engagement in the period between elections. Several options might be considered here, one of them being the issue of electoral reform. For instance, what scope might there be for the AEC to engage more proactively in debates over electoral reform, and in so doing, to engage citizens in that process? As Australian National University political scientist, Ian McAllister shows in his recent book, while as a new democracy at the turn of the 20th century Australia blazed a trail in electoral innovations, it is hard to make the case today that the country is known for innovation.20 More to the point, there are grounds for arguing that the electoral process has evolved a bit too far down the road of tight control and more specifically party control. The electoral process is complex and confusing and therefore arguably is not helping in an agenda of seeking to engage citizens.

So why not establish a people's convention to consider the underlying values that Australian citizens might like in their electoral system? Perhaps this is something that the AEC might consider leading.

Prepared for the AEC Electoral Research Forum, 19–20 Nov 2012, Canberra.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author, and do not represent the views of the Australian Electoral Commission or the Australian Government.


  1. There are a number of Mair's papers that could be cited, but the principal one referred to throughout this section is 'Ruling the Void? The Hollowing of Western Democracy', New Left Review. 42 (2006): 25–51. His book manuscript, completed just before his untimely death, will be published by Verso press in the next few months.
  2. It should be noted that while, for the most part, these trends are common to all established democracies there are always some exceptions – Australia being among them. Clearly, the enforcement of compulsory voting helps to maintain rather higher levels of electoral turnout than in other countries (though, this is countered somewhat by problems in ensuring voter enrollment, an issue that is now being dealt with by recent legislative reforms). Australia also somewhat bucks the trends on party identification decline, a point noted by Ian McAllister in his recent study on The Australian Voter (University of New South Wales Press, 2012).
  3. Richard Katz and Peter Mair, 'Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party', Party Politics. 1 (1995): 5–28
  4. E.E. Schattschneider, Party Government (Greenwood Press, [1942] 1977).
  5. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  6. Rudy Andeweg, 'Beyond Representativeness? Trends in Political Representation', European Review. 11 (2003), p. 151.
  7. Michael Saward, The Representative Claim. (Oxford University Press, 2010).
  8. Russell Dalton, Susan Scarrow and Bruce Cain, 'New Forms of Democracy? Reform and Transformation of Democratic Institutions', in Bruce Cain, Russell Dalton and Susan Scarrow. Eds. Democracy Transformed? Expanding Political Opportunities in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford University Press, 2003). Russell Dalton, The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation is Reshaping American Politics. Second edition (Congressional Quarterly Press, 2009).
  9. Camille Bedock, Peter Mair, Alex Wilson. Institutional Change in Advanced European Democracies: An Exploratory Assessment. EUI Working Papers, RSCAS 2012/11 (2012: Figure 1).
  10. Graham Smith, Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  11. John Dryzek, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations (Oxford University Press, 2000).
  12. Mark Warren, 'A Second Transformation of Democracy?', in Bruce Cain, Russell Dalton and Susan Scarrow. Eds. Democracy Transformed? Expanding Political Opportunities in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford University Press, 2003).
  13. Dalton, et al., 'New Forms of Democracy?'.
  14. Jürg Steiner, The Foundations of Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
  15. James Fishkin, When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation (Oxford University Press, 2009).
  16. Patrick Fournier, Henk van der Kolk, Kenneth Carty, André Blais and Jonathan Rose, When Citizens Decide: Lessons from Citizen Assemblies on Electoral Reform (Oxford University Press, 2011).
  17. Fishkin, When the People Speak.
  18. Robert Goodin, 'How can deliberative democracy get a grip?', The Political Quarterly. 83 (2012): 806–11.
  19. Mark Warren, 'Citizen Representatives', in Mark Warren and Hilary Pearse. Eds. 2008. Designing Deliberative Democracy: The British Columbia Citizens' Assembly (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  20. McAllister, The Australian Voter. See also David Farrell and Ian McAllister, The Australian Electoral System (University of New South Wales Press, 2006).