Voting methods and decision making

How do we decide together? The question is not taken for granted, but it is very rich in potential for experimental classroom activities on different decision-making methods and on the conditions necessary for the group to define its functioning as “democratic.”

from Daniela Martinelli and Francesco Pigozzo

In the practice of reflecting and deliberating together there is a decisive but often underestimated aspect. Here is the answer to the question: how do you decide together The issue is not taken for granted and is in fact very rich in pedagogical potential and didactic activities that can also be related to various disciplines of the school curriculum. However, numerous experiences and comparisons with teachers, classes, and schools across Italy have shown us that even where collective deliberation is actually practiced (usually, but not systematically), there is a tendency to greatly simplify the deliberation process, to take for granted the method of voting, to imply many conditions that, in turn, are necessary for a real and experiential understanding of what it means for a group to make collective decisions . The paradoxical result is that the school involuntarily becomes the bearer, under the convinced but superficial patina of “democracy”, of deeply anti-democratic ideological assumptions: democracy is equal to voting, voting equal to majority (almost always unspecified), majority equals choice better, more reasonable or whatever convincing, in the sense that it is attractive to conform to the majority when deciding is a race that has winners and losers. In this article we try to identify and define in terms of didactic experimentation which we believe are the main variables to consider when educating people to participate in collective deliberations.


Voting is not the only way to decide together, and in any case there is no single way to vote. That is why it is important that the widest possible variety of experiences be lived throughout the life cycle of the community of a given school class. methods of voting and collective decision-making, paying attention to the fact that each of them inevitably has both “advantages” and “disadvantages”, which depend in a contextual and specific way on the values ​​preferences of the group, its objectives and the specific decision to be taken. Here we take for granted, of course, that the methods in question always and in any case provide for the right of participation of each individual in the class: this does not mean that it is useful to stimulate a comparison also on the idea that this right is not must take for granted and that they exist. , in the current social reality and in the history of humanity in general, multiple alternative methods in which not everyone has the right to participate – without that. first always negative or unjustifiable. It is up to the group discussion to find out which situations or questions may lead to a limitation of the right to vote and to participate.

But with what methods is it important for the class to deal specifically? We try to list and define here those that are fundamental to understanding “from within” the institutionalized procedures for making public decisions at different territorial scales. Our invitation, however, is not to describe them to the class in relation to the functioning of the institutions, but to make them live directly:

• Unanimity. Voting method by which a decision is made only if and when all participants in the vote (or even all those who have the right to vote: what can prevent collective decision-making when they are absent) make the same choice . It implies that just one voter is enough to block the whole group. This is a widely used method, for example, in the European Council or, by unequally reserving “veto power” only to some states, to the UN Security Council.

• Absolute or “simple” majority.. It is called absolute because it is a method of voting according to which, once the total number of attendees (or those entitled to it) is known, the absolute number of votes needed for a certain option to win is also known in absolute terms. This number is the next integer after half of the total. For example, this is the current method for voting in most parliamentary resolutions, including confidence in the government in the Italian legal system.

• Relative majority. For a certain option to win, it is enough to receive a higher number of votes than all the others receive: this majority, in fact, is relative to competing options. This is the method of voting according to which, for example, the mayor of Italian municipalities with less than 15,000 inhabitants is elected.

• Qualified majority. In this case, the majority criterion is reinforced by specific rules: either by increasing the “absolute” threshold (example: 2/3) or by imposing additional characteristics on the majority that is formed (example: the majority cannot be exclusively male or female). ). females). For example, in the Council of the European Union many decisions are taken on the basis of the dual criterion of a majority representing at least 55% of the Member States and 65% of the total population of the European Union.

• Draw. In this case, no voting is done but the winning option is drawn from those previously formulated within the group. The number of options naturally changes the probability of success of each. It is a method used historically mainly for the election (in the etymological sense: “election”) of certain political positions.

• Consent. With this method, a collective decision is only made when all members of the group agree on what to do. A vote is not expected, but an “indefinite negotiation” that aims to reach the “lowest common denominator” between the positions at stake. For example, this is the current method for the operation of the Intergovernmental Conventions designated to amend the European Treaties or the Conferences of the Parties on Climate Change at UN level.

A useful exercise might be for the next group to decide with different methods on the same topic. Comparing the results, you will notice that the choice of method influences the outcome of the decision-making process: it is a fundamental awareness for citizens who will be forced to evaluate (or help develop!) Policy proposals within of the frame. of specific (and often complex) electoral laws. Laws for the understanding of which it is essential to know how to mobilize knowledge and skills both mathematical-logical and ethical.


However, for a group to say that it makes decisions democratically, it is not enough that it has become familiar with the different methods described above. There are a number of other necessary conditions that are equally essential to demonstrate through concrete experiences and reflections:

· First of all, it is necessary to be aware of the fact that the foundational question, for a group, is metadiscursive. decide how and what you decide… I WHO he decides. That is, are there rules for setting rules? And which ones are more appropriate from time to time? And therefore how Can we change our rules again? For individual decisions to be made, who and how identifies problems and asks the exact question to answer? Which allows us to reflect on the fact that rules and legality are fundamental, but they are always the result of power relations, of balance between different positions, interests, needs, needs. A group unites (and achieves otherwise unattainable goals for its isolated individuals) if it manages to make decisions together that then apply to everyone, while being united always carries a price for the “freedom” of its individuals. .

· The fundamental role of minorities. Different definitions of “majority” change the definition of the consequent “minority” or “minorities”, but with the exception of unanimous or consensual decisions, some kind of dissent will have occurred. For collective action, it is as important to be able to decide in such a way that everyone then respects the decision taken, as it is to take minority positions seriously, as bearers of “seeds of change” of which every human community must be always. able to take advantage of the mutability of its historical conditions. But also as possible antidotes to the always possible “dictatorships of the majority.”

This also refers us to thetheimportance of the debate: to make collective decisions in a democratic way, in fact, is not only to respect the ideas of others but also to give everyone the opportunity to express themselves and change their mind. It therefore makes a big difference whether or not to take the time to explain and share everyone’s motivations, which allows, among other things, substantial and not just formal respect for minorities: those who “lose” have their reasons. , their motivations, which must be known and taken into account. You can experience, by establishing a single voting system or decision, what happens if you have to decide instantly and if you decide again after a wide debate / debate, with the incorporation of new information not previously available, with the possibility of ‘explain reciprocal positions (thus leaving open the possibility of interacting and changing one’s mind, of taking fuller responsibility for one’s own statements, opinions, elections, etc.).

· The role of asymmetries of information and the flow of information in general. You can simulate a vote, divide it into groups or individually, providing information asymmetrically to different subgroups or individuals, and then redo the vote by changing the asymmetry and discussing the difference in outcome. If information is missing, poorly distributed, distorted, or structurally uncertain, there is no real democracy. even if the right to participate is formally distributed equally. It can be considered “special” information that refers to the decisions of the people in the group: which cases can justify the secrecy of the vote? To what extent can this secret change the outcome of a decision?

· Finally, we invite you not to neglect the problem of legality of the electoral or voting processIt is mandated (for an election of a class representative, for collective decision-making on a particular issue) to conduct an “election campaign” by any means to obtain consent. It then reflects on the “rules” and “limits” that must be placed on electoral or decision-making “competition,” so that the goal of obtaining consent fails to “justify” means that they enter. in conflict with the good of the community.

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