Public Comment

Commentary: Kitchen Democracy: The Great Pretender

By Steve Martinot
Friday August 31, 2007

The question of Kitchen Democracy (KD) has emerged in an important way in Berkeley over the last few months; and we need to understand its potential impact on what we are trying to do. Kitchen Democracy is a website that purports to constitute a connection between citizens and city hall. 

When Robert Vogel presented KD to the City Council in June, 2006, he presented it as a center for the dissemination of information, and a way in which citizens of Berkeley could exchange opinions on local issues, and present them to government. Marie Bowman of BANA, and Karl Reeh of LeConte Neighborhood Association both sponsored City Council funding KD as a site for information and idea exchange. But today, KD presents itself as a place to “vote” on issues. In fact, the idea of voting has become primary over the expression of opinion: KD informs its readers that they can “vote and optionally post a comment.” And KD considers that its tallies represent decisions made on issues. Councilmember Wozniak, who funded KD, presented KD as a place to “vote” on the rezoning of Wright’s Garage in Elmwood last Spring. Why is this important? 

A “vote” is a formal decision making procedure under established democratic rules. It is defined by a constituency which is composed of those people that the formal procedure of voting recognizes as legitimate voters. And it provides that constituency the means of making decisions for itself on issues that concern it. That decision-making process can take the form of a referendum, a vote on a proposition, or an election of a person to a governing body. In all cases, a vote is a formal procedure, under certain pre-established rules, for a defined constituency, toward the making of political decisions. 

A vote is to be differentiated from a petition. A petition is a voluntary expression of opinion by a list of signatories, directed to a policy-making body concerning their feelings and desires with respect to an issue. It addresses itself to those who have the power to vote on the issue. Because it is self-generated and self-constituting as a voluntary collective expression, it does not have the political weight of a decision-making process. Its aim is to collectively influence a decision-making process. It is not formal according to any rules of decision-making, but is ad hoc as an expression of proffered popular feeling. 

There are many other forms of political expression along with petitions. Letters to the editor, for instance, or letters to City Council or a zoning board, or statements posted on a bulletin board. All these are individual or collective expressions of opinion that do not have decision-making power. 

Since KD is a website to which people go voluntarily and in an ad hoc fashion, to register their opinions, it functions as a bulletin board. It is not a mechanism set up by a constituency through which that constituency can make a decision. It is purely voluntaristic. It does not facilitate any formal decision-making process for an established constituency, nor does it establish a constituency for itself. As a bulletin board enterprise, it belongs to the category of petition, and not of vote. 

KD is thus in bad faith when it presents the service it provides for people to voluntarily express an opinion as “voting.” It is doubly in bad faith when it presents a tally of opinions for and against a certain statement of an issue as a legitimate vote on the issue. It is triply in bad faith in presenting its own statement of an issue as representing the way a constituency to which it does not belong would state the issue. In sum, it is politically misleading people. And similarly, any person, whether city councilmember or private citizen, who interprets or evaluates the service that KD provides as “voting” is misleading people, and in bad faith. 

What is important (and inexcusable) about this element of political sleight of hand (pretending a bulletin board is a vote) is that both City Council and the zoning board have accepted the tallies proclaimed by KD as real votes on issues. They are thus, without the people’s agreement, giving KD the character of a referendum, with all the political weight that a referendum has. This is a large betrayal of trust on the part of City Council and the zoning board. Indeed, it constitutes an injustice on the part of City Council and the zoning board toward the citizens of Berkeley. 


Steve Martinot is a Berkeley resident.