I am sceptical of the idea that a substantial amount of EA funds should be allocated democratically. In my view there are some strong reasons to believe that the existing model of allocating funding (that is funders giving money to organisations which allocate money with the allocators' best judgement) does better than a simple democratic vote.
The main problem in my opinion is that individual voters do not have sufficient incentives to allocate collective funds in an effective manner
Rational Ignorance (or even irrationality)?
The main problem is that getting decisions to be correct requires a large amount of information (which is costly to collect) and decision making (which is again costly to make correctly).
Consider the decision on whether EA funders should spend more money on reducing civil conflict. This is a hard decision to make because it involves a large amount of information (like historical statistics on civil wars, their causes, historical efforts to reduce them etc)., subjective judgement (how tractable it is, comparing it to other funding opportunities, weighing PR concerns), and finally decisions based on the above judgements (how much to fund and to whom). The above process costs many hours of high intensity thinking.
The most obvious response to this is that EA voters aren’t going to be ignorant because they care about EA causes. The argument would go that EA voters are going to spend more time than what political scientists would consider rational because they have a deep commitment to the cause. I do find this plausible. Many EAs regularly donate over 10% of their income to cause areas. Many of them spend hours explaining and debating these issues online, and for some of them working in an EA cause area will be their main career priority.
My first response to this is that these people are going to be a minority of the total voter population (if broadly defined). Not everyone will have the same level of engagement with EA ideas, and not everyone will have the same level of personal interest in getting them right. These qualities are going to be concentrated in a minority of people because, relative to the total EA population (say as defined as DAUs or MAUs of the EA forum, or a larger one as GWWC pledge takers), this is a small number of people.
But my second critique is more substantive. It is that apart from being rationally ignorant on these issues, most voters probably will be irrational on them too. On several EA topics voters will be biassed in the sense that they will have beliefs that are systematically wrong in some direction. They might be in favour of some cause area without updating when new information or arguments are produced. Their notions about certain people or organisations might make them systematically biassed against them and lead to bad voting outcomes.
What incentive do voters in this have to improve? I don’t think they have many. Each voter does not think that their vote is very important. They won’t have a large chance of influencing the vote, so why bother doing all the reading anyways? Their previous notions will influence the voting decision and they will have no incentive to change if they are wrong.
The existing method for EA orgs to allocate money has been for donors to give them money, then to analyse the costs and benefits of whatever opportunities they investigate and decide on what grants to give.
I think this would lead to better outcomes because there are clearly identifiable people who have reputations to build by doing good analysis and recommending good grants. This can work in the opposite direction (people are too afraid to propose high risk grants because they feel it might stick to their name if it fails), but everything considered, it is a good thing that this incentive exists.
These people are better informed about the topic in ways that voters will not be able to. Many of them have years of experience in the cause area, both inside and outside EA. Some have advanced degrees in the subject and this is also valuable in building a base of knowledge to allocate donor money
(Conflict of interest: I will receive money from an organisation funded by Open Philanthropy)