Does “fuzzy voting” increase satisfaction with democracy?
Anyone who has ever been undecided about whether to write “yes” or “no” on the ballot paper before a vote is in good company: a survey conducted as part of the “Demokratie Labor Basel” revealed that 61% of respondents find it difficult to form a clear opinion before voting at least “once in a while”. And 42% have already refrained from voting altogether because they could not bring themselves to make a decision.This is therefore clearly a widespread phenomenon for which the current voting procedure is not entirely innocent
Voters are confronted with a situation in which they either have to accept or reject a bill they were not involved in drafting one hundred per cent. There is no provision for shades of grey, although a certain degree of indecision is inherent in almost every human decision. Originating from the natural sciences, this fuzzy logic has been increasingly applied to the social sphere in recent years. The aim is to better reflect the preferences of citizens in the result by allowing them to express the degree of their personal (dis)satisfaction with a specific proposal on the ballot paper. The simplest way to implement fuzzy voting is to offer a continuous scale on the ballot paper instead of “yes” and “no”
Test run for the “climate-friendly Basel” initiative
What is theoretically logical can, however, fail in reality. As part of the “Basel Democracy Lab”, a real referendum was therefore held to test the effects that could be expected from the introduction of a scale-based procedure. It was also investigated whether the new procedure would be accepted by voters and how they would rate it in comparison to the previous yes/no procedure
The test was carried out as part of the vote on 27 November 2022 on the cantonal popular initiative “For a climate-friendly Basel (climate justice initiative)”. The counter-proposal drawn up by parliament was also put to the vote at the same time. 1,872 voters from the canton of Basel-Stadt took part in an online survey to find out whether and how they would have voted in reality and what decision they would have made under the alternative fuzzy voting procedure. The answers were weighted according to gender, age and party preference in order to draw an approximately representative picture of the Basel electorate
A very simple form of scale-based procedure was used in the survey (see screenshot in Figure 1). It was a continuous scale ranging from 0 (no) to 100 (yes)
Figure 1: Screenshot of the scale-based voting question in the online survey
How would the willingness to participate in voting change as a result of the introduction of the scale-based procedure? It is particularly interesting to see whether the new procedure has an effect on voters who rarely take part in votes today. In fact, the study results show that up to a third of this group could be motivated to participate more frequently. However, 19% also stated that they would vote (even) less often with a scale-based voting procedure, which ultimately results in a positive overall balance of 14 percentage points. Further analyses have also shown that people who are often undecided or rather dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy before the voting date in particular would be motivated to participate by the fuzzy voting procedure
More attractive or more complicated?
However, the evaluation of the alternative procedure is not only positive. The respondents had the opportunity to give their assessment of six statements on the fuzzy voting procedure. Figure 2 shows the approval ratings for the individual statements, categorised according to the degree of indecision before voting. On the one hand, this confirms the finding that those who are often undecided judge the new procedure most positively. For example, 49% of this group believe that it would make voting more attractive for them and 54% state that it would make decision-making easier for them. On the other hand, it is also clear that the other groups are much less in favour of the new procedure: Over 80% of the rarely undecided – and, mind you, two thirds of the frequently undecided – agree with the statement that the procedure would make voting more complicated and overwhelm people. There is also a majority in all groups who believe that the new procedure would not change the final result
Figure 2: Percentage agreement with six statements on the fuzzy voting procedure by degree of indecision before voting
It could be argued against this stance that the basic purpose of fuzzy voting is to better reflect citizens’ political preferences, which ideally contributes to greater satisfaction with democracy. The fact that it is very unlikely that clear voting results will be “flipped” by the scale-based procedure was also demonstrated by the two proposals that served as test cases in the study: In the hypothetical evaluation using the fuzzy voting method, both the climate justice initiative (-1.1 percentage points) and the parliamentary counter-proposal (-5.5 percentage points) came in lower than using the conventional yes-no method. However, as both proposals were approved by a very large majority of the Basel electorate, this would not have played a role in the final result
The scale-based voting method appeals to the “right” groups: the frequently undecided, abstainers and dissatisfied. With these groups in mind, it would be worthwhile to subject the procedure to further tests and also to ask what possibilities exist for the visual and linguistic design of the scale so that voters could use the fuzzy voting procedure in an intuitive and appropriate way. At this point at the latest, an interdisciplinary approach is required that combines aspects of political science, psychology and design
 All results of the fuzzy voting project as part of the “Demokratie Labor Basel” can be found in the final report at https://demokratielabor.ch/de/blog/fuzzy-voting-abschlussbericht. The overall project is financially supported by the Mercator Foundation Switzerland and the Raiffeisen Jubilee Foundation. The local project management is the responsibility of the “Demokratie Labor” association in Basel, while BFH Wirtschaft is responsible for the scientific realisation of the project
 For details, see: Portmann, Edy and Andreas Meier (2019). Fuzzy Leadership. Trilogy Part I: From the roots of fuzzy logic to the smart society. Wiesbaden: Springer Vieweg.