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Guest Post: The Oregon Citizens Initiative Review

By Peter Levine / 2013 July 10th

(This is the sixth in a series of blog posts by CIRCLE, which evaluated several initiatives funded by the Democracy Fund to inform and engage voters during the 2012 election. These posts discuss issues of general interest that emerged from specific evaluations.) CIRCLE evaluated seven initiatives funded by the Democracy Fund during the 2012 election. These interventions were not comparable; they had diverse purposes and operated in various contexts and scales. We certainly do not have a favorite among them. But we do recommend that policymakers pay attention to one of the projects because it can be adopted by law—with positive effects. In 2011, the Oregon legislature instituted a process called the Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR). This reform unifies two apparently contrasting forms of democracy, the popular initiative and the deliberative forum.

Presentation of Key findings from Measure 85, 2012 CIR, Healthy Democracy Fund
Presentation of Key findings from Measure 85, 2012 CIR, Healthy Democracy Fund

With a referendum, the public can circumvent entrenched interests and hold politicians accountable. A referendum honors the democratic principle of one person/one vote.

Oregon was one of the first states to institute referenda, initiatives, and recall elections. Perhaps the most famous advocate of these populist reforms was William Simon U’Ren, known nationally as “Referendum U’Ren,” who formed the Oregon Direct Legislation League in 1897. As a result of early initiatives, Oregon was the first state to elect its US Senators directly (1908), the first to hold a presidential primary election (1910), and one of the first to allow women to vote (1912).

These were achievements. But a referendum does not require people to learn, think, or discuss. As the number of referenda rises, the odds fall that voters will be thoughtful and well-informed about each ballot measure. Deliberation is a form of democracy that encourages people to be well-informed and thoughtful. Juries and New England town meetings are deliberative bodies that have deep roots in the United States, but governments can also create innovative deliberative forums today. For instance, several cities have asked AmericaSPEAKS to convene large numbers of representative citizens to discuss an issue—such as the city plan of New Orleans or the budget of Washington, DC—and give official input on the final decisions.

Referenda can easily reach large scale and offer every citizen an equal vote, but they may not reflect thoughtful opinion and may in fact present information in a format that is too complex or filled with jargon to be easily understood even by well-informed voters. They can even be manipulated by the authors of ballot measures or by groups that spend money on campaigns. Deliberation addresses those two problems, but deliberations tend to be small and would cost a great deal (in both money and participants’ time) to make widespread.

The Citizens Initiative Review process combines the best of both ideas. The text of an initiative is given to a randomly selected, representative body of 24 citizens who study it, hear testimony on both sides of the issue, and collaboratively write an explanatory statement. They spend five days on this work. Their explanation does not endorse or reject the initiative but gives deliberated and informed arguments for and against it. A copy is mailed to all households in Oregon as part of the state’s Voters Pamphlet.

CIR: How it Works, Healthy Democracy Fund
CIR: How it Works, Healthy Democracy Fund

Penn State Professor John Gastil found that nearly half of Oregon voters were aware of the CIR’s explanations in fall 2012. He also conducted a randomized experiment, surveying a sample of Oregonians who were given the explanations and a control group who were not. His experiment showed that the text produced by the CIR influenced people’s views of the ballot measure and increased their understanding of it. If many people knew about the explanation, and the explanation changed people’s opinions in an experiment, then the CIR probably changed many people’s opinions across the state. CIRCLE conducted an analysis of media coverage of the CIR process in December of 2012. With the bulk of coverage appearing in Oregon-based media outlets, it generally focused on the CIR process—describing it and communicating its validity and trustworthiness. Healthy Democracy, the organization that managed the CIR, created strong and consistent messages that guided this public conversation, which at times expanded into advocacy for the CIR or appeals to strengthen democracy through such processes. The media also used the CIR as a way to talk about deliberative dialogue in a concrete form. For the non-Oregon media especially, it offered a way to think about the possibilities for such processes in other locales. Advocating deliberative processes and igniting the public imagination about new forms of engagement were clearly strong narrative threads in the public discourse caused by CIR media coverage. CIRCLE is also in the final stages of interviewing political leaders from other states who have observed the CIR in Oregon or are engaged in other educational activities about the CIR. We are asking them what would influence their decision to adopt the reform. We will report our results here.

The previous entries in the series can be accessed below:

1 - Educating Voters in a Time of Political Polarization 2 - Supporting a Beleaguered New Industry 3 - How to Reach a Large Scale with High-Quality Messages 4 - Tell it Straight? The Advantages and Dangers of Parody 5 - Educating the Public When People Don’t Trust Each Other

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