Consensus voting doesn't build consensus

Behind effective decision making is an effective decision making infrastructure. At COP, like the UN Security Council and many other international organisations, decisions are made through consensus – where there is the no explicit objection. This presents many problems because it means everyone must be content with the decision to move forward. In the context of when states are telling other states to reduce emissions, progress is difficult.

As a geographer I love analysing power relationships within spaces of dialogue and a quote said in this side event sums up my feels on consensus.

“Consensus is the best decision rule, least likely to produce consensual behaviour.” Or in simpler terms, if you want consensus, don’t use consensus voting.

This may sound ridiculous but remember the purpose of consensus is to enable conversations so that agreement can be made which satisfies all parties. However by nature of the consensus voting procedure where one objection means the motion fails, the actor with the lowest ambition gets to dictate debate and get their way if they are willing to block any proposal that is stronger than they desire. Thus consensus creates a process where debate takes place around the purpose of avoiding a block and focusing on the lower end of the ambition rather than the middle or upper end of what more progressive parties desire.

Conversely, majority voting systems create power dynamics and a space where the discussion focuses on a more moderate space. For example when a 51% majority is required, conversation will be centric and when a 75% majority is required, then debate will be less centric and focus on only having a 25% rejection rate although still give a much more open debate than consensus. Voting is therefore far more conducive to directing the conversations to a more moderate position and actually building consensus since discourses will occur that more parties agree with and progressive parties can have more input and relevance.

It is very difficult to decide on what level of majority should be required given there are many types of decisions being made. A really interesting concept proposed by one of the panellists was that of layered voting. Rather than having the same majority required for all types of motions you take a staggered approach. From research, procedural motions are normally the least contentious and financial motions the most contentious. As an example of a layered voting process, a simple majority of 51% would be required to pass procedural motions, a three-quarters majority for substance motions and financial changes require a 90% majority.

There are definitely issues with this system such as agreeing what level and categorising motions but once in place this could definitely shift discussions away from being dominated by those with the least ambition and towards those with more aspiration.

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Posted on November 20, 2013 and filed under UN Climate Talks 2013.