Citizens' Initiative Review: a reform that helps inform voters

By Tyrone Reitman of Portland, Oregon. Tyrone is the Co-Founder, and Co-Director of the non-profit, Healthy Democracy Oregon.

What would it be like to discuss the pros and cons of a ballot measure over five full days with a group of fellow voters from across Oregon? Would it be a bore?

What if you had the chance to ask tough questions of the actual proponents and opponents of a ballot measure in an effort to figure out what a measure will or won’t do if passed? What if you could call on policy experts to answer questions that campaigners didn’t answer? What if you could provide Oregonians statewide with information about ballot measures in a way that could really make a difference?

Earlier this month, 48 Oregonians from around the state had a chance to do just that and it was, in fact, exhilarating.

From August 9th – 20th, two separate panels of 24 randomly selected, and demographically balanced Oregon voters met to evaluate two measures on the November ballot. The first panel evaluated Measure 73, which proposes mandatory minimum sentencing for repeat offenders of certain sex crimes and repeat drunk drivers. The second panel evaluated Measure 74, which would establish medical marijuana dispensaries in Oregon. The results of each evaluation will be published as a prominent new feature of the statewide Voters’ Guide in order to provide voters with a unique source of clear, useful, and trustworthy information about ballot measures.

This unprecedented civic experiment is called the Citizens’ Initiative Review. My colleagues and I at Healthy Democracy Oregon have been promoting the CIR since 2007. The Oregon Legislature took a bold step by approving a pilot of the CIR process during the 2009 Legislative session in order to see if this reform would be a valuable public service to voters. We’ve just wrapped up the two Reviews for this election cycle, and want to get your take on this new way of reforming our political process.

Here are the basics of how the Citizens’ Initiative Review works:

Put concisely, over five days, a cross-section of 24 voters hear from advocates for and against a measure, call upon policy experts to answer questions, and then summarize their findings as a resource for fellow voters.

The Review is designed to provide voters with high quality information about measures on the ballot from a source they can trust—themselves. In order to keep the Review process trustworthy, a random sample of Oregon voters is contacted to serve on a CIR panel. Of those who voluntarily opt-in to serve, 24 are selected based solely upon their demographic information to create a balanced panel that reflects the state electorate in terms of age, gender, party, ethnicity, education, likelihood of voting, and location of residence. The panel is a cross-section of the state’s voting population.

The Review is also designed to be fair to both the advocates for and against any given ballot measure and the panel of voters. In order to be fair, the Review process is in-depth. It gives advocates enough time to present their case and answer questions, provides the panel the opportunity to really grapple with the information they receive, and gives the panel a format to have their questions answered. The Review is fair in terms of time—both sides of a measure are given equal time, resources, and opportunities to engage in the Review.

At the end of the Review process, the panel of 24 voters draft their ‘Key Findings’ and summarize the best reasons to support and oppose the measure—all on a brand new page in the Voters’ Pamphlet (and online). Here are the results:

Review of Measure 73 Healthy Democracy Website Measure 73

Review of Measure 74 Healthy Democracy Website Measure 74

So why do this?

Because voters deserve a whole lot more than they’re getting when it comes to well-reasoned information during elections.

When it really comes down to it, most ballot measures are complex. On the other hand, most campaigns (both for and against) work to oversimplify what a measure will or won’t do to win at the ballot. That’s the reality of our modern-day initiative process. No one’s really to blame; that’s just how it works.

The Citizens’ Initiative Review, however, is an opportunity to step beyond that campaign reality, have an in-depth deliberation with everyday people about the very real choices at election time—and provide every voter with a powerful new tool for sorting through even the toughest questions about ballot measures. We hope, given a chance, this new form of public service will become an integral part of our initiative process—adding deliberation to our system of direct democracy.

Are you excited by the idea of adding quality deliberation to our system of direct democracy? Whatever your thoughts are on this subject, I’m sure they won’t be boring.

(Tyrone Reitman is the Co-Founder, and Co-Director of the non-profit, Healthy Democracy Oregon.

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    I applaud your efforts. The Voters Pamphlett has become a tired anachronism, espcially when deliberately used to confuse and mislead as did some pro M66 and M67 advocates last cycle.

    Its a grand expirement and I wish you the best. taking two very interesting Measures for the first go round was also a great idea.

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    Great idea. Thanks for your efforts!

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    My son just turned 18 and votes for the first time this fall. What a great help this will be for him.

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    I agree - good idea. Anything that promotes transparency, facts and clear communication is a plus. There's way too much hyberbole in all campaigns and I fear it will get worse - thanks to the SCOTUS decision around the United case.

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    Thanks for working on this. Two thoughts from the statements:

    • A percentage number might be more comprehensible to someone skimming. i.e. instead of "23 agree" saying "96% of panelists agree"

    • In the quest for brevity (and consensus on wording) the statements seem to devolve into basic soundbites or bullet points, such as "will create jobs." If we're trying to get Oregonians to think critically, it would be fabulous if there's some way to get more complex arguments. But perhaps that's simply not possibly given the constraints of time, money, and space.

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      It will be unfortunate if this becomes some kind of polling surrogate, instead of including an analysis of more complex efforts. In short, I prefer the City Club approach, but think that anything which increases the substance of discussion is a good thing.

      P.S. Is anyone else getting sick and tired of the 1/2 page ads at the front of the Oregonian, which speak volumes about jobs and funding, yet almost entirely ignore the "Casino" word?

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    A few reactions. Most important, I agree completely with Evan. You must convert these to percentages.

    Second, it's a bit disturbing to have any disagreement at all on this point, which strikes me as a fact, not a question for debate:

    "Oregon spends over 10.9% of its general funds on corrections - a greater percentage than any other state. (19 agree)"

    Any sense why there as any disagreement at all on that point?

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    The Citizens' Review Process is a great tool for Oregon voters and will hopefully continue. As one of the proponents of Measure 74, I can assure you that the 24 panelists took their job very seriously and often asked tougher questions than many policy makers and legislators.

    Measure 74 proponents were very happy to be included in the Citizens' Initiative Review. It was great to address voters' questions and address their concerns. We feel that the process is a great tool and hope that all measures can be examined in the future.

    Measure 74 proponents are very pleased that 54% of the panelists supported safe access to patients, creating jobs for Oregonians and generating revenue for Oregon health programs. We are confident that a majority of Oregon voters, especially if adequately informed about the measure, will come to a very similar conclusion as the Citizens' Initiative Review and vote yes on Measure 74.

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