“Direct democracy, like many aspects of democracy, is beautiful, powerful, and messy. Right now, voters go to the polls to vote on ballot questions with inadequate information—or sometimes with no information at all. It is difficult to blame voters, however, when there are several questions on the ballot. Money spent on ballot measures, often coming from outside the state, can distort information and skew the public debate. Sometimes ballot questions are so poorly written that not even the proponents know the full extent of the consequences until after voters have approved the question. 
— Robin Teater, Executive Director of Healthy Democracy and Jessie Conover, Program Director

The Problem

Over the past 30 years, the ballot initiative has become an increasingly important part of Massachusetts’ electoral system, allowing voters to directly tackle momentous matters such as assisted suicide, paid sick leave, casinos, charter schools and marijuana legalization.  2018 will be no exception – many consequential initiative petitions are working their way through the certification process right now.

For each question on the ballot, the voter guide (“Red Guide”) distributed by the Secretary of State currently provides two sources of information: an official summary prepared by the Attorney General, by nature legalistic and opaque, and statements from the pro and con campaigns, by nature partisan and one-sided.  Faced with complicated ballot issues and a barrage of advertising, voters are often left confused and sometimes even unsure of the effect of a Yes or No vote.

The Solution

Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) empowers voters to help their fellow voters better understand complicated ballot questions and make informed, thoughtful decisions at the polls.  Based on principles of deliberative democracy, CIR was adopted in Oregon in 2011 and is being piloted in a number of other states, including California, Colorado, and Arizona.  It has been shown to increase voters’ understanding of ballot questions, strengthen their confidence in their vote, and improve their opinion of the political process as a whole.

Rachael Cobb, Professor of political science at Suffolk University, on CIR:

The 2016 Pilot

To test the advisability of adopting CIR in Massachusetts, a CIR pilot was held in 2016 on the marijuana legalization initiative (Question 4). Twenty citizen panelists were drawn from a random sample of 10,000 Massachusetts voters and selected to be reflective of the state’s electorate in terms of age, race, gender, geography, party affiliation, and educational attainment.  Both the “pro” and “con” campaigns participated actively in the CIR pilot and expressed satisfaction with the fairness of the process.  Many members of the citizen panel described their participation as their most meaningful civic experience.  Subsequent evaluation by researchers from Penn State University found that 77% of Massachusetts voters surveyed considered the Citizens’ Statement “very helpful” or “somewhat helpful” in understanding Question 4. In focus groups held across the state, clear support emerged from voters of all political outlooks – liberal, moderate, and conservative – for making CIR a regular part of our election system.

Both the “pro” and “con” campaigns on Question 4 participated actively in the CIR pilot and expressed satisfaction with the fairness and value of the deliberation process.  In addition, many of the members of the citizen panel described their participation in the pilot project as their most meaningful experience in politics.  Some even stated that it had restored their faith in the political process.

The Legislation

Representative Jonathan Hecht (D-Watertown), Representative Brad Hill (R-Ipswich) and Senator Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) have filed legislation (H.368/S.390) to establish the Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) system in Massachusetts.  Under the CIR system, citizen panels representative of the overall voter population conduct in-depth deliberations on ballot questions.  The panels hear from advocates and experts on all sides of a question and prepare a Citizens’ Statement of key findings that is distributed to the voting public in the official election guide. Experience in Oregon, which implemented the CIR system in 2011, has shown this to be an effective, well-received way to inform voters about complicated ballot measures.  In February 2018, the Joint Committee on Election Laws gave the bill a favorable report.

The 2018 Pilot

While continuing to work toward final passage of H.368/S.390 this session, we are also preparing for a second CIR pilot on a 2018 ballot question to provide further validation of this approach to civic engagement and voter education.