Tweaking Democracy: Innovations In Democratic Decision Making

Our image of democratic procedures centers on electing representatives (presidents, mayors, parties) at regular intervals, years apart. But collective decisions are far more ubiquitous and, with the advent of modern technology, far more frequent than the typical image suggests. The ideas behind the election of representatives are being tweaked and reworked to decide the allocation of a broad range of resources, from seats in parliaments, to budgets of municipalities, to places in high schools and kidneys.

The methods used are sometimes carefully planned, sometimes ad-hoc, but they always challenge us to reflect on what we expect and value in a collective decision procedure. How do we ensure fairness? How do we achieve accuracy? And, is there a tension between the two? The course will survey methods of democratic decision making that go beyond standard models of voting. The students will be invited to identify values embedded in concrete procedures (e.g., in the Deferred Acceptance method), to reflect on them (e.g., in what sense is the method fair), to find weaknesses, blind-spots and limitations.


Quick reminder that the November 22 lecture will be on Zoom, at this link. Join at 18:15, or a minute or two earlier!


  1. Logistics [pdf, Canva]

  2. Voting Theory [pdf, Canva]

  3. Apportionment [pdf, Canva]

  4. The Wisdom of Crowds [pdf, Canva]

  5. Matching [pdf, Canva]

Possible Questions For the Final Assignment

Any of the themes covered in the the course (voting, apportionment, wisdom of crowds/epistemic democracy, participatory budgeting) is appropriate as a research topic. The list of works in the Bibliography sections are general overviews of these fields, but going deeper into one aspect is welcome, and encouraged. The material covered so far can also serve as inspiration for research into a new type of question: in principle, any type of problem that involves adjudicating between diverse, possibly conflicting, points of view, is fair game. Some examples that come to mind:

  1. Product ratings: How should we aggregate ratings for products on online shopping platforms? For instance, ratings may come in the form of stars (1 to 5) from different sources across the web. It is tempting to say we will take the average, but maybe the number of ratings should also play a role? Should an average rating of 4.5 out of five reviews count as better than an average of 4.2 out of 1000 reviews? What other methods can we come up with? What is the right way of thinking about this problem? What can go wrong with the average? What properties (axioms) should a rating system satisfy?

  2. Ranking actors: How can we rank actors based on the movies they were in? The website Rotten Tomatoes provides a list of movies every actor has been in, together with their Tomatometer and audience score. Can we use this information to create a score/ranking for actors? Again, averages seem like the obvious answer: but is this the best, or fairest way to go about it?

  3. What kind of apportionment method does your country/state/province use to assign seats in the governing body (e.g., the parliament)? For instance, what rule does Germany use to assign seats to parties in the Bundestag, after each election? Wikipedia is usually your friend here.

  4. What are arguments pro/against the idea that democratic decision procedures lead to good decisions? Note that opinions range from optimistic (Landemore, 2013, 2020, 2021), to pessimistic (Brennan, 2016, Caplan, 2008).

  5. What is a prediction market, and how does it work? See Wolfers & Zitzewitz, 2004.

  6. How does a participatory budgeting process work, from start to finish, in a particular city? See de Sousa Santos (1998) for Porto Alegre, for instance. Are the initiatives in your local city/country?

  7. What can go wrong with a matching system? Al Roth’s paper on medical interns (Roth, 1984) is the model here. Any other examples? What about school matching? Kidney exchange?

  8. Does stability strike you as a good property to ask of a matching outcome? What kind of properties besides stability would you think make sense?


  1. Roth, A. E. (1984). The Evolution of the Labor Market for Medical Interns and Residents: A Case Study in Game Theory. The Journal of Political Economy, 92(6), 991–1016.
  2. de Sousa Santos, B. (1998). Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre: Toward a Redistributive Democracy. Politics & Society, 26(4), 461–510.
  3. Balinski, M. L., & Peyton Young, H. (2001). Fair Representation: Meeting the Ideal of One Man, One Vote. Brookings Institution Press.
  4. Roth, A. E., Sönmez, T., & Ünver, M. U. (2004). Kidney exchange. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 119(2), 457–488.
  5. Cabannes, Y. (2004). Participatory budgeting: a significant contribution to participatory democracy. Environment and Urbanization, 16(1), 27–46.
  6. Wolfers, J., & Zitzewitz, E. (2004). Prediction Markets. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18(2), 107–126.
  7. Surowiecki, J. (2005). The Wisdom of Crowds. Anchor.
  8. Abdulkadiroğlu, A., Pathak, P. A., Roth, A. E., & Sönmez, T. (2005). The Boston Public School Match. The American Economic Review, 95(2), 368–371.
  9. Anderson, E. (2006). The Epistemology of Democracy. Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, 3(1-2), 8–22.
  10. Caplan, B. (2007). The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. Princeton University Press.
  11. Shah, A. (2007). Participatory Budgeting. World Bank Publications.
  12. Sintomer, Y., Herzberg, C., & Röcke, A. (2008). Participatory Budgeting in Europe: Potentials and Challenges. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32(1), 164–178.
  13. Szpiro, G. (2010). Numbers Rule: The Vexing Mathematics of Democracy, from Plato to the Present. Princeton University Press.
  14. Wampler, B. (2010). Participatory Budgeting in Brazil: Contestation, Cooperation, and Accountability. Penn State Press.
  15. Landemore, H. (2013). Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many. Princeton University Press.
  16. Schwartzberg, M. (2015). Epistemic Democracy and Its Challenges. Annual Review of Political Science, 18(1), 187–203.
  17. Roth, A. E. (2015). Who Gets What — and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  18. Brennan, J. (2016). Against Democracy. Princeton University Press.
  19. Pacuit, E. (2019). Voting Methods. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
  20. Landemore, H. (2020). Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century. Princeton University Press.
  21. Landemore, H. (2021). An epistemic argument for democracy. In The Routledge Handbook of Political Epistemology (pp. 363–373). Routledge.
  22. Aziz, H., & Shah, N. (2021). Participatory Budgeting: Models and Approaches. In T. Rudas & G. Péli (Eds.), Pathways Between Social Science and Computational Social Science: Theories, Methods, and Interpretations (pp. 215–236). Springer.
  23. Dietrich, F., & Spiekermann, K. (2022). Jury Theorems. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
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