Experiment in Direct Democracy at Yale Results in Large Shift on Tax Issues

Informed discussion can profoundly affect people's positions on issues of mutual interest, according to an innovative poll conducted at Yale University this weekend.

Informed discussion can profoundly affect people’s positions on issues of mutual interest, according to an innovative poll conducted at Yale University this weekend.

The New Haven Regional Dialogue, a Deliberative Poll conducted at Yale on March 1-3, showed dramatic changes of opinion on the issue of local revenue sharing. A randomly-selected and representative sample of residents of the 15 towns in the New Haven region spent the weekend considering various aspects of regional policy, listening to each other’s views and perspectives, and questioning experts, advocates, and decision-makers. When this cross-section of the region’s residents completed their discussions, they supported voluntary revenue sharing among towns and state provision of incentives to encourage sharing of new revenues from commercial development.

When first interviewed, 80 percent of participants said they agreed with the statement: “My town should maintain local control over all of its tax revenues from new businesses and industries.” After deliberation, support for the proposition fell to 42 percent.

By contrast, voluntary agreements for sharing of incremental revenue showed a dramatic increase in support. Before deliberation, 64 percent agreed that “my town should try for a voluntary agreement with other towns in the region to share some tax revenues from new businesses and industries.” After deliberation, support rose to 81 percent. Support also increased from 68 to 80 percent for the state’s providing “incentives for towns in the region to share some tax revenues for new businesses and industry.”

On a separate issue, the future of Tweed New Haven Airport, participants showed little change of opinion. Both before and after the weekend a strong majority of 73 percent continued to favor expanding commercial passenger service “to provide more flights to more places.” The support after the weekend was slightly more equivocal, with those “strongly agreeing” moving from 49 to 41 percent and those “agreeing somewhat” increasing from 24 to 32 percent. One possible reason may be exposure to the environmental and personal issues that expansion of the airport will confront. Further analysis of the discussions may help to reveal what questions remain unanswered for those who support the idea of airport expansion.

Participants also showed dramatic increases in their levels of information. For example, before the weekend, only 8 percent knew that Connecticut law allows communities to share property tax revenues. After the weekend, 69 percent knew. The percentage that knew that the rate of job growth in the New Haven region was less than the national average during the 1990’s, rose from 44 percent to 75 percent.

Evaluations of the process by the participants were strongly positive. Large majorities thought that the members of their small groups “participated relatively equally in the discussion” (87 percent), that the moderator “did not try to influence the group with his or her own views” (94 percent) and that the process as a whole was highly valuable (79 percent giving it an 8, 9 or 10 on a 0 to 10 scale).

The participants in the weekend’s deliberations were a representative sample of 136 residents of the population of the entire New Haven region. They were representative of the region on key socio-demographic and attitudinal items when compared to a baseline survey of 1,032 area residents.

The Regional Deliberative Poll was designed by Yale faculty members Cynthia Farrar and Donald Green in collaboration with the inventors of the technique, professors James Fishkin and Robert Luskin, both of the University of Texas at Austin. Since Fishkin originated the concept in 1988, 18 Deliberative Polls have been held in the U.S. and abroad. “Ordinary polls often simply reflect the public’s impression of sound bites and headlines,” Fishkin says. “As this Regional Dialogue demonstrates, we get a different picture of the views of the people when citizens have a chance to become informed and consider competing points of view.”

Over the next two weeks, participants will have an opportunity to meet with the chief elected officials in their towns to discuss their views about regional issues. Farrar stated that organizers of the event will be undertaking further analysis of the Dialogue to provide public officials and policymakers with more nuanced information about the views and concerns of an informed and reflective citizen body.

Farrar, director of Urban Academic Initiatives at Yale and the coordinator of the weekend activities, noted that the Greater New Haven event was the very first regional Deliberative Poll. “We believe it could serve as a model to other urban regions around the state and the nation, particularly those who are pursuing ‘smart growth’ strategies.” Observers from other cities-including Pittsburgh and Cambridge, England -came to learn from the proceedings in the hope of organizing similar events.

The Regional Dialogue was sponsored by the Connecticut League of Women Voters Education Fund and supported by the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and other civic organizations in south central Connecticut. The project’s major funders include the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the Community Foundation, the Renée B. Fisher Foundation and Yale University. Additional funding was provided by Fannie Mae, William C. Graustein, New Haven Savings Bank, the Regional Water Authority, United Way of Greater New Haven and United Illuminating.

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Media Contact

Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345