Public Comment

Commentary: Kitchen Democracy in the Gourmet Ghetto

By David Cohn
Friday September 14, 2007

The foundation of our freedom is the right to petition the government. Every Fourth of July, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, a petition, and this right is protected by Article One, Section One of the United States Constitution. Are Internet polls a legitimate form of petition, and can they be used to measure public opinion? 

Berkeley taxpayers have financed Kitchen Democracy, and the results of their web polls have been endorsed by Berkeley officials as legitimate measures of community opinion. This encourages and perhaps demands that citizens participate in these polls. Unfortunately for our community, volunteer polls like Kitchen Democracy can only shape our opinions, they can never measure them. 

Kitchen Democracy polls their membership to gain their opinion on community issues, and then they publish “decisions” based on these polls. No matter how enthusiastic they are to decide things, Kitchen Democracy’s voters can only represent themselves. There is no reason to value a citizen’s vote on the Kitchen Democracy website over another’s signature on a petition, or over their upraised hand or voice-vote at an assembly. Unlike volunteer polls, petitions and assemblies are constitutionally protected. Unlike web polls, petitions require signatures, not disclaimers. 

According to AAPOR, the American Association for Public Opinion Research, “Polls based on submissions to websites...may be good entertainment but have no validity...If such unscientific pseudo-polls are reported for entertainment value, they must never be portrayed as accurately reflecting public opinion.” 

The vote in the North Shattuck area regarding the plaza provides a vivid example of what’s wrong with volunteer polls in general, and Kitchen Democracy in particular.  

Kitchen Democracy conducted an unpublicized election regarding our neighborhood project. Though I visit the North Shattuck Plaza area nearly every day, I’ve never seen a poster, flyer or any other public promotion regarding the plaza vote. 

On Sept. 5, Kitchen Democracy published a “decision” in favor of the North Shattuck Plaza, complete with a green checkmark symbolizing their affirmation. The culmination of a two month election, this “decision” masks significant neighborhood opposition to the Plaza which was revealed by the Kitchen Democracy election itself. 

Since Kitchen Democracy does not publish a time-based record of their election, I have used downloaded files and dated comments to reconstruct the voting pattern.  

Simply stated, a surge of votes and comments arrived in the last few days of the election, mostly favoring yes, and mostly from people listed as living over one mile away from the North Shattuck Plaza. This just-in-time manufactured consent produced a 199 to 180 margin, apparently justifying Kitchen Democracy’s “decision” favoring the plaza. 

This “decision” does not acknowledge neighborhood opposition to the plaza proposal, for the majority of Kitchen Democracy voters living within one mile of the plaza voted against the project. Despite the lack of public promotion of the vote in the neighborhood, and despite the last-minute surge, the plaza neighbors still managed to defeat the Kitchen Democracy proposal 132 to 119. So how should Kitchen Democracy’s plaza “decision” be received by the press, public and city? 

Last month I contacted the president of AAPOR, Nancy Mathiowetz, and requested her opinion, were Berkeley’s leaders abridging our right to petition the government directly by inferring undue value to Kitchen Democracy’s web-based polls? I described how their poll results had been used by the Zoning Adjustments Board in the Wright’s Garage case. She assigned two aides to investigate. 

On Sept. 9, I received a reply from AAPOR Standards Chair Charlotte Steeh, who examined the Kitchen Democracy website with her associate. Ms. Steeh’s response included, “It is unfortunate when a governing body takes the kinds of data produced by websites like Kitchen Democracy as measures of legitimate opinion.” 

She writes, “There are many examples of websites similar to Kitchen Democracy. As long as these sites do not try to promote the data collected on them as scientific and representative, they do not violate the AAPOR Code...We suggest you point the council to our code where we publicize the fact that these sorts of results do not have general validity and should not be regarded as if they do.” 

Ultimately, though web-based polls like Kitchen Democracy may provide citizens a new and legitimate means to petition the government, the results of volunteer elections should not be used to gauge the public’s opinion. Because they do not represent the general population and because they may produce deceptive results, I believe the City of Berkeley should formally discourage the use of volunteer polls, particularly those used to measure support for construction projects. I suggest it’s time for the press, the public and the city to regard all of Kitchen Democracy’s “decisions” with appropriate skepticism. 


David Cohn is a Berkeley resident.