Local and statewide initiatives and referenda give citizens the opportunity to vote directly on legislation, but voters often lack the information they need to make informed choices. The State of Oregon has created a potential remedy for this situation, called the Citizens Initiative Review (CIR), which convenes a group of average citizens together to evaluate ballot measures and share their recommendations with the voting public. Healthy Democracy, the innovative organization behind the CIR, is a grantee of the Democracy Fund. My colleagues and I recently completed an evaluation of the 2012 CIR process in order to understand its quality and impact. Last fall, the CIR Commission, which was established by the Governor in 2011, convened panels of 24 randomly-selected, demographically representative Oregon citizens to spend a full week examining two different ballot measures. One initiative proposed reforming the corporate tax system and the other would have authorized the construction of private casinos in Oregon. At the end of their deliberations, each panel produced a one page CIR Citizens’ Statement that went into the official Voter’s Pamphlet that the state mailed to every registered Oregon voter. The panels’ judgments ultimately matched the election outcomes, with voters ending a corporate tax refund and declining to authorize private casinos. Among other things, our research team found that:
- A majority of Oregon voters were aware of the CIR.
- Roughly two-thirds of those who read the CIR Statements found them helpful when deciding how to vote.
- Those who read a CIR Statement learned more about the ballot measures than those who read other portions of the official Voter’s Guide.
For me, the most interesting finding is the impact of the CIR on voter knowledge. As the CIR Commission’s webpage explains, the Oregon process “is an innovative way of publicly evaluating ballot measures so voters have clear, useful, and trustworthy information at election time.” So, we wanted to find out whether the CIR actually does increase voter knowledge and voters’ confidence in the facts that they learn.
To answer that question, we chose to conduct an online survey. When contacted in the final weeks before the election, some survey respondents were shown a CIR Statement and others were shown nothing. We then asked respondents to assess whether 10 factual statements pertinent to the ballot measure were true or false. Respondents frequently expressed uncertainty and chose the “don’t know” response, but many did claim to know whether each statement “definitely” or “probably” was true or false. Those who read the CIR Statement outperformed the control group on nine of the ten knowledge items. Those who had read the CIR recommendations answered, on average, twice as many knowledge items correctly—again, with “don’t know” responses being more common that inaccurate ones. Real Oregon voters who had not yet read the Voters’ Pamphlet gained more knowledge from reading the CIR Statement than from either equivalent doses of paid pro/con arguments or the official Explanatory and Fiscal statements.
You can download the full report to learn more about our evaluation findings. Though the Oregon CIR is not a panacea for all of the weaknesses of the initiative and referendum system, our findings—along with those from our 2010 evaluation report—do support the view that everyday citizens can produce high-quality deliberation on complex policies and give their peers accurate and useful information to consider before voting. Moreover, it’s clear that by distributing those results through the official Voter’s Guide, the Oregon CIR reaches and influences large numbers of voters in Oregon. Yale democratic theorist Robert Dahl wrote in On Democracy (1998),
One of the imperative needs of democratic countries is to improve citizens’ capacities to engage intelligently in political life . . . In the years to come . . . older institutions will need to be enhanced by new means for civic education, political participation, information, and deliberation that draw creatively on the array of techniques and technologies available in the twenty-first century.
The Oregon CIR appears to be one such institution, ingeniously using citizens themselves to inform the judgments of their peers. The one hitch is that the CIR does not receive any state funds, so it remains unclear whether it will continue to thrive—or spread to other states—in future years. John Gastil (email@example.com) is Professor and Head of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Pennsylvania State University and the Director of the Penn State Democracy Institute. His most recent books include the co-edited volume Democracy in Motion: Evaluating the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Civic Engagement and The Jury and Democracy, both by Oxford University Press.