A good idea, coming to a ballot measure near you

Jeff Golden

Picture 4 Do you know about the citizen wisdom movement?  It's been used in places like Canada and Australia more than here.  It's smart.  There are different ways to adapt it to have impact, and to refresh some fact-based idealism that public policy can have visible connection to what the public thinks.

This coming year, thanks to HB 2895 from the last session, we're going to try out a version of citizen wisdom called Citizen Initiative Review on three as-yet unnamed ballot measure.  Here's why I think it matters.

 After the column ran Elliot Shuford of Healthy Democracy Oregon pointed out an error: "The CIR was not funded by the legislature- we're on the hook to the do the fundraising for the 2010 Reviews."

Which probably means that If you like what you see here, Healthy Democracy Oregon would like to hear from you.  One more source: over many years, Tom Atlee of Eugene has laid out a broad context for what he calls co-intelligence.  He'll take you deep.

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    "Citizen wisdom" is a great term for what's driven me, in the past few years, to devote so much time to building up Oregon-related content on Wikipedia. Our editing community has learned that we're capable, without too much effort, of producing resources that are often vastly more informative than what's produced by government sources, and more accessible than what's produced by the academic, non-profit, and corporate communities.

    The CIR strikes me as a huge potential to capture some of the wisdom that exists in our community, and leveraging it toward improving the quality of legislation we pass. Although I'm about to leave Oregon, I'm very excited to see where the CIR goes. I think it's a much more fruitful area to explore than the efforts I've seen to restrict our process of direct democracy.

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    if it's a good idea, there'll be a legislator to sponsor it. unless forced to by weird circumstances (M66/67) i vote No on everything. initiatives are almost badly written and much more difficult to repair than inadequate laws. a law will face hearings that give advocates a chance to sit with legislators and discuss the matter. no paid signature collectors, no tv & radio ads, no hyperbolic bullshit campaigns.

    if you think it should be a law, talk to your local rep or senator and work to make it a law. it's a superior process, by far.

  • Ian McDonald (unverified)

    Jeff: I pulled this statement from one of your cited links:

    Our biggest fights — over health care reform, climate change, wars abroad, even the meals tax — don't come from people drawing different conclusions from the same base of information.

    I think the evidence against this claim is overwhelming. I couldn't disagree with it more.

    This belief doesn't mean the proposal is a bad one. If I were behind it, I would try to sell its practical benefits, and not attempt to rewrite the book on human nature.

  • Cay Borduin (unverified)

    I take your point, but think about this. Given the number of laws on our books passed by initiative, it's obvious that plenty of people do vote yes. So having a transparent, un-politicized evaluation of the initiative in the Voter's Pamphlet would be a real help.

    In addition, 66/67 are not the aberrations you imply they are. There are many issues where entrenched interests in the legislature do not want to see laws passed, whether it's a good idea and has public support or not.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    If politics were more like this, I'd be more like Pollyana.

  • Marvinlee (unverified)

    I'm all for "transparent, un-politicized evaluation of the initiative in the Voter's Pamphlet..." Where do we find the transparent, un-politicized individuals to write them?

  • John Silvertooth (unverified)

    There seems to be an inherent fear of the public on the part of insiders of all stripes and of course our intellectuals God love them who see anyone without at PhD as a drooling moron. Our dear departed Frank Roberts once described this to me as the "vagaries of the voters." Mirriam-Webster describes "vagary" as "an erratic, unpredictable, or extravagant manifestation, action, or notion." Of course Frank was a state college professor and a well paid one as well.

    Our situation in Oregon following a series of conservative wins on taxes, land-use and gay rights coupled with some unsavory tactics seems to me to have entrenched this to a level of downright paranoia.

    The fact is that Oregon law already requires a neutral explanatory statement in the Voter's Pamphlet on any initiative measure to be drafted by a committee of proponents and opponents. So it seems this drive is about more than presenting a neutral view.

    The fact is that the Oregon System of Initiative, Referendum and Recall is without a doubt one of the great accomplishments of the true Progressive movement. And is it is sad today to see liberals and power brokers do nothing but chip away at it.

    The initiative process should be embraced by Progressives who have pretty much yielded the playing field to Conservatives in the past two decades. One exception is the Medical Marijuana law where Progressive had the courage to take the horse by the reins and ride the beast. If we were waiting on the Legislature for that we would still be stuck in the halls between committees and subcommittees and blah blah - on it's too controversial for my district blah blah- then they go home to light up a joint and sneak out to the gay bar. And that God for the CWIP anti-nuclear initiative or we would be staring down the cooling towers of two fat nuclear plants at Pebble Springs- do you think the legislature would have given us that? Hardy har har- oink oink- the closer you get to the Capitol the more pork products you smell in the frying pan- One session I was priveleged to work for Wally Priestley who was always fond of saying that if anything good came out of the Legislature it was usually by accident.

    The problem here really reflects the underlying disconnect between liberalism/progressivism and the common voter which we see so easily manipulated by conservatives- What ever happended to populism?

    Probably what the elite sees as a major failure of the initiative system in of course the success of the property tax limitation cause. In Oregon there was an excellent chance to blunt this movement with enactment of the progressive "homestead exemption" but "no" the liberals would rather go down on the high property tax ship.

    If the liberal/progressive movement had any spine and/or imagination there would easily be as many progressive wins during this era as conservative gains.

    If you want to get rid of paid signature gatherers make it easier to get a measure on the ballot- not harder. Then on one hand we are supposed to get hysterical because a convicted felon circulates a petition and then on the other hand we hear that most people in prison are there on drug violations where the pattern of discriminatory enforcement is a matter of history...

    It's time to feed the dogs out here so I'm signing off.

    This panel isn't necessarily a bad idea and undoubtedly it will have appeal to anyone that thinks only an uninformed moron could disagree with them...

  • JP (unverified)

    I just have to chime in here, as this is a pet peeve of mine.

    This idea seems to me like a very well-thought-out fix to the problem of a rotting tree, when the whole fucking forest is diseased.

    We already have panels of citizens who are supposed to make judgments as to the fitness of the laws we propose to add to our statutes and constitution.

    They're called state legislators.

    We also have a nifty way to hold these people accountable for their performance in assessing said fitness.

    It's called an election.

    Revolutionary, you say? Why no - it's merely adherence to one of the precepts the founders got right - the guarantee to the states of a "republican" (lower-case "r") form of government, as opposed to a "democratic" (lower-case "d") form.

    In other words, this entirely sensible idea would be completely unnecessary if the legislature were willing to grow a pair of ovaries and do its fucking job for once in its wretched life, making the wholly disastrous initiative process like abortion should be - safe, legal, and most of all rare.

  • Jeff Golden (unverified)

    JP, I think you have it largely right here.  But your whole formulation is a SHOULD.  Given the IS -- along with the theoretical possibility that this process could lead to changes legislators won't adopt, central among them public campaign financing -- do you see some merit in giving citizen wisdom some opportunity?  You could say "Naw, just cut down the rotten tree," but IMJ that would be an armchair cop-out.      Thanks for responding.  JG

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    JP et al: do you think cities shouldn't have the exclusive right to amend their charters? Hate vote-by-mail? Think we ougtta still be trawling the Columbia with gillnets? Think corrupt public officials should be able to serve out their terms without a recall provision? Think an eight hour work day is a silly idea? Women shouldn't vote, right?

    Like it or not, the "Oregon System" is here to stay. And it's been responsible for some pretty important advances in the state, that didn't make it through the legislature.

    An idea to make it work better should be dismissed, just because you think the system is rotten?

    Nice. Convincing, too.

  • Lord Beaverbrook (unverified)

    I have to agree with JG's response to JP. If the forest is rotten, and somebody comes along with a remedy that looks like it really might restore some health, do you do that, and more, or still cut it down? Ultimately, I guess that depends on how long you think it will take a new one to grow, and on what condition you think the current one can be restored to.

    On that level one has to question the metaphor. My gardening experience tells me that 90% of the time you get better results starting over rather than working with seriously impaired flora.

    One also wonders, does "neutral" mean lowest common denominator? You could call the current system "gonzo", since each side gives a biased description of the narrative, but everyone knows what the bias is. If neutral means "just the points that the two sides agree on as fact", I think the statements would far less useful than they are currently. The current, biased statements, also are like little ads. If you can't afford air time, you'll have little hope with a neutral statement, written by a third party.

  • Jeff Golden (unverified)

    My Lord:  as to your point on neutrality:  I don't think the ballot pamphlet statements written by this citizen panel as they finish their work are meant to be neutral.  They'll be free to lay out their subjective conclusions, which may or may not show  consensus.  But presumably they come to those conclusions with a broader interest, more reliable background information, and more time to deliberate than we usually do.  Will they be trusted more than the from-the-gitgo partisan voices in the partisan pamphlet?  I think so.  We'll see.    Jeff

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    A few thoughts:

    1) Jefferson was wrong then and is wrong now.

    I am sure Jefferson would endorse your proposal, since his rather fantastic notion of an agrarian nation of freeholders has deep roots in the American consciousness, even though it lost touch with the political realities within a few decades of the Revolution. That doesn't stop starry eyed populists like Ross Perot or Huey Long--they pop up every few decades or so--from claiming that if only "just folks" could make policy, things would be so much better than if the "professionals" got involved.

    2) We look to surgeons to do surgery, why do we think anyone can perform political surgery?

    You argue that complex policy alternatives can be evaluated by "common folks" making "sensible" decisions. On what basis do you make that claim? Do you have any empirical evidence that a random sample of citizens, relying on five days of "facilitated" education, can substitute their wisdom for the years or decades of accumulated political wisdom of legislators?

    3) Deliberation often goes awry. Fishkin is wrong.

    There is a growing literature (Diana Mutz, John Hibbing) that shows that, in actual operation, deliberative assemblies do NOT result in consensual decisions, but instead exacerbate differences.

    4) Accountability is key

    Elections have a wonderful focusing feature: they make legislators ACCOUNTABLE for their bad decisions. On what basis can we hold a citizen review boards accountable?

    4) Where is the evidence?

    This all sounds very appealing. But where is the evidence supporting these claims (quotes are taken from Jeff's blog post):

    • Most political divisions these days occur because people are "desperately clinging" to different facts.

    This does not describe the Congress I know. In the case of health care, different members draw different conclusions from the same information.

    • "We have a rational sense of our self-interest, and may even care about the interests of those around us."

    Besides being contradictory (we can care about ourselves, or about others, but only if others' interests and our own area aligned, can we be said to be rationally self-interested), this claim flies in the face of most of recent behavioral economics and political psychology, which shows that a wide variety of decisions are made on emotional and non-cognitive grounds

    • "Canada, Australia and elsewhere have empaneled citizens chosen at large to study, deliberate and pass judgment on especially tough issues."

    But have they DONE anything? I am familiar with the citizen commission on election reform in British Columbia, which deliberated for a year and got nowhere. Do we have any evidence that there citizen's commissions have actually accomplished anything?

  • Tyrone Reitman (unverified)

    Mr. Gronke, With all due respect, given that everyday citizens are the ones making decisions on citizens initiatives, I think it is entirely appropriate that everyday citizens help inform their fellow voters on these issues. This proposal fits in very well with the intent of the citizens initiative process. That's why I helped found Healthy Democracy Oregon to advance this reform.

    We know he Citizens' Initiative Review works - we tested it in 2008. The whole purpose of HB 2895 is to demonstrate to the voters of Oregon the utility of the reform. That is why the legislature passed this bill. If voters like it, use it, and it helps sort through the political clutter and spin, why shouldn't we advance this new form of citizen deliberation in our democracy?

  • John Gastil (unverified)

    Lots of posts are already chewing on the big issues here, but let me add these thoughts:

    • The Citizens' Assembly in British Columbia did reach quite a sound judgment--one that was then ratified by 57% of the province in a referendum shortly thereafter; problem was, the bar for passage was set at 60%, and that's why their work "got nowhere." The deliberation was first rate, and their recommendation was popular.

    • The most successful analogy to date might be Participatory Budgeting, which one can Google to the heart's content. There, everyday people (mixed with NGOs) are actually shaping the allocations of portions of municipal budgets. Real power, real deliberation.

    • As for the alleged polarization/division that occurs in "deliberation," the studies like Mutz's and some of my own research that show such effects always refer to short-term discussions, lasting anywhere from 10 mins. to 2 hrs. The CIR is a much closer cousin to Citizen Juries, which do tend to converge on large supermajorities, as did the BC Citizens Assembly. (Check out the Jefferson Center website for details.)

    • Will the Oregon CIR work as intended? Health Democracy Oregon is quite sure that it will; one would hope for such optimism from its organizers. I'm seeking research funding to test that conviction. Mine is a "skeptical optimism," hoping for the best (based on the facts we have on hand) but always conducting tests to determine how well founded that hope was. Keep hope alive, yes, but also subject it to rigorous tests. If I lived in Oregon, I'd be proud to be the first state to undertake such a test.


  • Del (unverified)

    I am actually looking forward to this.

  • Lord Beaverbrook (unverified)

    Yeah, that's what I thought too Jeff. And I really like the idea. It's just that sometimes when one side goes off the rails, their coded language finally gives me a clue why they really are supporting the measure and who's likely to vote for it.

    Which I would know if I did proper research.

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    Prof. Gronke:

    It appears to me that supporters of the CIR (and I'd include myself among them) are making one claim, while you are defending against quite a different claim.

    I take the following as a premise, and I think most CIR supporters do as well:

    The ballot initiative will continue to exist, and will continue to be used as one method for advancing legislation.

    But you spend much of your comment comparing a citizen review panel to elected legislators. Seems like a straw man.

    For instance, you ask: "On what basis can we hold a citizen review boards accountable?"

    This is a reasonable question, but its context is important. Citizen review boards would be making recommendations, not decisions; so accountability is a very different matter than with elected legislators who vote directly on legislation.

    It would be more appropriate to compare CIR's to the entities that currently advise on ballot measures, which include both advocacy groups like Defend Oregon and Sizemore's groups, and also the legislative offices that provide research in the voters' pamphlet, and also any Joe CItizen who's willing to plunk down $500 to publish his own screed in the pamphlet. We already have a tremendously low bar for both accountability and transparency for some of these groups. A CIR wouldn't necessarily be more accountable, but if it's designed properly, their recommendations should be vastly more transparent than the alternatives.

    It seems like your comment would be better framed as an objection to direct democracy on the whole, than a comment on CIR. Perhaps your point is this: "Direct democracy is a bad system, and the CIR is not enough of a fix to correct its central flaws." If so, I think it would be useful if you'd say so directly; without some context like that, it's difficult to see how your comment applies to the CIR.

  • Jeff Golden (unverified)

    Pete, your post is meticulously intelligent.  Thanks  Jeff

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    Again to Prof. Gronke -- I'm also wondering if you might be suggesting this:

    "If CIR becomes common, it might tend to encourage and increase the amount of laws pursued by direct legislation, rather than through the legislature. That, in itself, would be a problem; even if it slightly improves direct legislation, if it reduces the role of a more able group of experts, that's a bad thing."

    And a related point I'm wondering if you'd comment on:

    What do you think about the idea of "citizen legislators?" By design, Oregon has part-time legislators; many of them serve only for a brief period. There are no professional certifications required (as with a surgeon or even a judge).

    Do you think citizen legislators are well-suited to take on matters of public policy? Does the mere fact that they shift their focus to public policy make them better-equipped than the masses? Sufficiently to do a good job?

    Or would you recommend some kind of reform in our legislature, as well?

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    <h2>Thanks, Jeff! I missed your words as I was feverishly typing my most recent comment :)</h2>

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