Re: Report on Survey of Cohousing Communities 2011. Just released. A must read!
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Sat, 24 Sep 2011 16:46:56 -0700 (PDT)
On 24 Sep 2011, at 1:44 PM, Dane Laverty wrote:

> it sounds like the consensus-based decision making process is the cause of a 
> lot of frustration
> in communities. While I understand that a simple majority approach might
> result in less satisfaction with any given decision, I wonder if that would
> be balanced out by requiring less personal investment from each member in
> the decision making process.

The problem with majority vote is exactly that it requires less personal 
investment. Whenever people do not work to understand their differences enough 
to find a mutually enriching solution, they are dis-engaging. Relationships are 
always changing, either moving closer or becoming more distant.

While all relationships balance and rebalance, when the issues affect how you 
live on a daily basis, disengagement is not healthy and not why people move 
into cohousing. Conflict is difficult but disengagement is worse. It can 
destroy the the community.

People may be in the majority on some issues and in the minority others, but on 
important issues, there will be a pattern. We have people who want to avoid 
middle-class values of consumption and others who want the latest technology in 
the CH. They won't switch on different issues.

Consensus requires that everyone understand each other and care enough to 
respect each other's needs. Sometimes this happens using majority vote — in 
religious communities for example — but the fear is that when things get bad, 
it is just too easy to vote and walk away.

That said, I think we don't place enough value on another voting system called 
range voting or rating. The five-stars and 1-10 scales are range voting 
systems. Wikipedia has a good article on this and William Poundstone has 
written a very nice book, Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What 
We Can Do About It). He explains the history, mathematics, and game theory of 
voting systems and why they produce unrepresentative results.

Range voting is by far superior in lack of ability to be manipulated and in 
producing fair and representative outcomes. It produces more satisfying results 
than any other voting system. 

I think we could use range voting to inform our decisions and avoid hours and 
hours of discussion. Everyone in the community could rate the options even if 
they hate meetings. Then in the context of the tallied individual preferences, 
the discussion be more clearly focused. No long arguments for the options that 
60% already prefer and no discussion about the three options no one ever wanted 
anyway. Discussion can focus on the options that some feel strongly about and 
that others don't understand. What do you see that I don't? 

A famous discussion we had was about a fence surrounding a plot of land. Most 
people had for years been using a gate that exited on Blair Road. Now some 
people wanted the gate moved to Aspen because the fence would now exclude 
access to an area they needed to water. But if everyone used that gate, the 
land would have a path trodden down the middle dividing a lovely open space. 
The team had spent hours on this without resolution and finally brought it to 
the whole community. Two hours of explanation and discussion later, no one 
objected to having _two_ gates and spending another $400. And they had thought 
that almost from the beginning of the discussion but were confused about why 
this was such a big deal.

if we had started with a short explanation followed by range voting, or even a 
distributed ballot the week before, we would have had a clear indication of the 
strength of people's feelings. I think the whole decision would have taken 30 
minutes tops.

Another advantage of range voting that isn't available in rounds or consensus 
discussions is that you can clearly see that 30% of the group have rated an 
option 10 and 60% a 1. Or that the vote is almost equally divided across the 
whole range. Or everyone is at 3. A discussion is unlikely to make this clear 
because many people never speak or are reluctant to say "this is a 1" when they 
think everyone else is at 10. To meet everyone's needs, you need to know that 1 
is out there.

The range ratings can inform discussion and speed up consensus decisions.

Consensus doesn't work when people have different aims. If 30 people are intent 
on building a community with no children and 30 people are focused on building 
a child-focused community, those values are so different that they will create 
perpetual conflict and make consensus impossible on a whole range of issues. 
Since cohousing development has a lot of time pressure, someone will have to 
give and a vote may be the only way to make a decision soon enough to still be 

Sharon Villines
Takoma Village Cohousing, Washington DC

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