The Story of American Direct Democracy - Part Two

Pictured: Proponents of the Massachusetts Casino Repeal Initiative on Election Day 2014.

Pictured: Proponents of the Massachusetts Casino Repeal Initiative on Election Day 2014.

This post was written by Ian Clarke, the Tufts University fellow working on the Citizens’ Initiative Review project team this summer. As part of Ian's work, he'll be preparing a weekly blog exploring topics related to CIR and the initiative and referendum system in Massachusetts. July 17, 2016.

The initiative and referendum craze that swept the newly populist nation in the late nineteenth century didn’t compel as many Americans in the Eastern half of the country. However, while the overwhelming majority of its neighbors remained traditional in the avenues they offered for new legislation, Massachusetts, well in keeping with its tradition of blazing trails, became a hotbed in the push for direct democracy.

Around the turn of the century, the first efforts to establish direct democracy in Massachusetts began to organize, without success. Finally, after a decade of misfires, the Massachusetts Direct Legislation League began hiring effective, energetic staff who managed to organize popular support for their ideas. Both the Democrats and the Roosevelt-supporting Progressive Party utilized this support as a weapon in the elections of 1912.

Three years later, Governor Walsh made direct democracy one of his priorities in his efforts to secure a constitutional convention through a legislative vote. This measure was finally approved by both houses and the voters, leading to the 1917 Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. The vote to institute Initiative and Referendum processes was ultimately a clean-cut success, with a tally of 163-125-30, but only with significant compromises. These conditions continue to stretch the amount of time necessary for a measure to reach a public vote relative to other states with Initiative and Referendum processes.

In the Massachusetts public’s first-ever ballot question, cider and beer were officially designated as non-intoxicating, and thus became legal. A decade later the people revoked Massachusetts’ prohibition measure entirely. Other changes in the early years of direct democracy involved incremental changes in everything from the manner in which party candidates had to be nominated to the regulation of sports on Sundays.

By the middle of the century, ballot questions became a wholly ingrained part of the state’s political landscape. Even though they were in function separate from the world of the legislature, they became important political tools as candidates touted support or opposition to controversial questions. An effort to legalize female contraception was arguably the most decisive factor in the Democrats securing the first majority in the House of Representatives in the state’s history.
A grassroots activist culture developed around initiatives in the second half of the century, leading to heavy popular-instituted regulation of pollution and animal testing. Other targets have included the power of the Governor’s Executive Council and tax levels.

But more recently, concerns have grown nationwide that direct democratic processes, intended to circumvent special interests and put more power in the hands of the public, are susceptible to messaging tactics from small groups of people with particular policy agendas. More and more members of the public vote based on little if any fact-based information, and there have been allegations in many states that interest groups have pushed for questions to reach the ballot because legislatures would never allow them.

In considering the reasons we adopted the Initiative and Referendum system in Massachusetts, it’s clear that we have to do more to reconcile the way the system works and the motivation behind it. One of these steps could very well be the process the Citizens’ Initiative Review Pilot Project team will conduct, and I personally look forward to observing it to find out this August.

The Story of American Direct Democracy - Part One

Pictured: Kansas members of the People's Party, late 19th century.

Pictured: Kansas members of the People's Party, late 19th century.

This post was written by Ian Clarke, the Tufts University fellow working on the Citizens’ Initiative Review project team this summer. As part of Ian's work, he'll be preparing a weekly blog exploring topics related to CIR and the initiative and referendum system in Massachusetts. June 30, 2016.

We publish all of the information on our site, including the piece I posted last week, in the service of an honest exploration of what the mechanics of the modern ballot system in Massachusetts look like. But in thinking about where this blog should travel as we continue posting, we recognize that context is incredibly important. An essential component in knowing how this institution works in our state today is learning also how it first arose and how it spread to states throughout the nation.

The founders of the United States never really considered the sort of direct governance to which many Americans now have access (or anything like it). Most contemporary leaders of that era were wary of the masses as a political entity without the filter of a representative to vote on their behalf. Government in the United States adhered to this strictly representational course without interruption for over a century after the Revolutionary War.

But many Americans in the late nineteenth century came to feel that representative government was unduly influenced by industrial interests. Rather than try solely trying to occupy and re-assert control over the system that had escaped them, populists crafted proposals to circumvent the thick weeds of representative government by borrowing ideas the Swiss had used since the thirteenth century. The concept allowed ordinary citizens to assemble support for laws they wanted and then pose these questions to the people directly on Election Day.

By the year 1918, the enthusiasm for adopting these measures into state constitutions catapulted initiative and referendum mechanisms into over half of the states. The details and logistics did, as one might expect, vary from state to state. But they were without question all a product of a broad, common energy that had taken hold in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans.

The desire for this sort of democracy carried the day most strongly in the West, where farmers and laborers most identified the specter of the Eastern establishment as a threat. States in a bloc ranging from Montana to Arizona and California all enacted initiative and referendum measures during this period. However, across the wide swath of eastern states where direct democracy remained largely nonexistent, Maine and Massachusetts broke the mold and inserted these institutions into their state constitutions.

As we explore the best ways to conduct direct democracy in the state of Massachusetts, it's important to start thinking about the original impetus and inspiration for the system itself. In doing so, we also ask ourselves how well direct democracy functions in fulfilling that original hope: to renew a vital connection between the people and the laws they live under. But that story is for a second entry. More to come. 

Making Ballot Initiatives More Deliberative and Voter-Friendly


This September 2015 post first appeared on the Harvard Kennedy School’s blog. It provides a helpful overview of the steps taken to lay the groundwork on the Citizens’ Initiative Review pilot project.

by Sam Feigenbaum

Repeal of gas tax indexing. Expansion of the deposit recycling system. Casino gaming and earned sick time. So comprised the thicket of ballot questions that Massachusetts voters confronted at the polls in November 2014.

Next year’s slate of questions promises to prove just as challenging for the voting public in the Commonwealth. Legalization of marijuana, repealing Common Core standards, and raising the cap on charter schools are all questions likely to make the ballot.

Not only do the outcomes of ballot questions like these in Massachusetts and states across the United States deeply impact the lives of residents, but they touch upon complex and often, highly technical, issue areas. It is critical that voters are able to access reliable and helpful information to help them understand ballot questions before they head to the polls.

Unfortunately, voters report that dependable and trustworthy information on ballot questions can be hard to come by. Across the Commonwealth, both Democrats and Republicans will tell you that every election season they are sure to receive a steady stream of queries from voters looking for resources to help them make sense of that year’s ballot questions.

Since 1986, when the Massachusetts legislature, responding to the Supreme Court decision in First National Bank v. Bellotti, struck down limits on spending to finance ballot question campaigns, the problem has only become more acute.

It is difficult to know whether the elimination of spending limits on ballot questions is the sole contributor to the rise in their frequency. Some on Beacon Hill argue that the real reason that the usage of ballot questions has increased is that the legislature is increasingly reticent to tackle thorny political challenges—say, for example, the legalization of marijuana.

The graph above charts the number of initiative petitions to make the ballot since the system was instituted in Massachusetts in 1919. Pre-1986, 30 initiative petitions made the ballot over 65 years. Since 1986, 48 initiative petitions have made the ballot in 28 years.

After the fall 2014 election cycle, State Representative Jonathan Hecht’s office began to look at ways that Massachusetts could do more to provide voters with access to dependable and unbiased information on ballot questions.

At present, the Commonwealth provides voters with the following information in the official election guide on each ballot question:

• a summary written by the Attorney General of what the proposed law would do,

• the effect of a yes vote and a no vote on the question,

• a 150 word argument provided by a proponent of the ballot question and an 150 word argument provided by an opponent of the ballot question, and

• the text of the proposed law.
Starting in 2016, the official election guide will also include an 100 word fiscal impact statement on each ballot question prepared by the Secretary of Administration and Finance.

While this information and the fiscal impact statement that will be added in 2016 certainly represent a good faith effort on the part of legislators to give voters the background detail they need to make well-informed decisions on ballot questions, research conducted in other states on ballot guides that include the four components currently provided in Massachusetts plus a fiscal impact statement indicates that the information is lacking in key ways.

Voters find the summary, text of the proposed law, and the fiscal impact statement to be written in too bureaucratic a style to be accessible. And, not surprisingly, voters consider the arguments given by the proponents and opponents of the ballot question to be misleading. No wonder then that polling shows that nearly three-quarters of voters consider ballot questions to be too complicated to understand.

With a fuller picture of the limitations of the information that Massachusetts provides voters on ballot questions, Representative Hecht’s office looked to other states to see if any had different systems in place to better serve voters with accessible and unbiased evaluations of ballot questions.

A system called Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR), institutionalized in Oregon in 2010, has been catching the attention of policymakers in a number of states. Under the CIR system, a citizen panel consisting of roughly 18 to 24 participants is calibrated to reflect the demographics of the overall electorate. Over the course of three to five days, experts on all sides of the chosen ballot question speak before the citizen panel, with ample time included for questioning and internal discussion amongst citizen panelists. Professional facilitators moderate throughout and, at the close of the session, help the citizen panelists prepare a statement of findings to be included in the official election guide sent to all voters.

Research conducted on the efficacy of CIR has shown encouraging results. Over the course of studying numerous iterations of CIR in Oregon, John Gastil, Professor of Communications at Pennsylvania State University, has found that citizen panelists engage in quality deliberation, that citizen statements reflect sophisticated opinion and are free of factual inaccuracy, and that voters who read citizen statements show greater knowledge gains than voters who read other parts of the official election guide.

Perhaps most impressively, even though CIR has only been in place for three election cycles in Oregon, over fifty percent of voters report reading citizen statements. Encouraged by these findings, State Representative Hecht filed legislation to implement the CIR system as practiced in Oregon here in Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts, over 6,000 bills are filed each legislative session. Given the sheer numbers, it takes a concerted push to move a piece of legislation toward passage, especially when the legislation would institute an idea as unfamiliar as CIR.

Fortunately, Healthy Democracy, the organization that pioneered CIR in Oregon, shared lessons on how they built political momentum for CIR’s passage into law. Tyrone Reitman, the executive director of Healthy Democracy, helpfully explained that the key to their effort in Oregon had been a privately funded pilot and evaluation of CIR in connection with a ballot question—Ballot Measure 58, which proposed that “English immersion” be required in public schools. The pilot raised awareness amongst key policymakers and the evaluation, conducted by the League of Women Voters, found the CIR process and citizen statement to be fair and unbiased.

Healthy Democracy also shared that they were now working to expand CIR to other states. If a team in Massachusetts could provide the organizational and political support needed to host a privately funded 2016 pilot project, then Healthy Democracy would work to ensure that the funding needed to hold the pilot and evaluation would be available.

Over the past few months, a team has coalesced on the ground in Massachusetts to make the 2016 pilot project possible. Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service has agreed to serve as the local host institution, providing invaluable institutional backing and experience with the practice and methods of deliberative democracy. The Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School and Suffolk University have pledged to encourage their students to get involved and help organize and host the pilot. And John Gastil, the researcher who has studied CIR in Oregon, got in touch to express his excitement at the possibility of a Massachusetts pilot project—he already had funding in place to conduct an evaluation.

A bipartisan advisory board, which will advise on which 2016 ballot question should be selected for the pilot sports influential leaders from the worlds of academia, policy, and politics, including Alan Solomont, Dean of Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Archon Fung, Acting Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, and State Senator Viriato deMacedo, ranking Republican member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

With these pieces in place, once funding is secured, the groundwork will be complete for hosting the pilot in August 2016.

Every election cycle, ballot questions are used as vehicles to decide issues of great importance, and yet they often cause confusion among voters. As the Springfield Republican described it during the 2014 election, “To the untrained ear or the unschooled voter, ballot questions sound somewhat like an Abbott and Costello ‘Who’s on First?’ routine.”

Citizens’ Initiative Review holds the potential to provide the electorate with the information it needs to more fully understand complicated initiative and referendum questions. As such, the privately funded pilot and evaluation project, which will come at no cost to the state, is a more than worthwhile effort to undertake. If the pilot illustrates that CIR serves as a helpful and trustworthy resource on ballot questions for voters in Massachusetts as it has in Oregon, then the real push will begin to pass legislation into law.

Talking with Voters in Davis Square

This post was written by Ian Clarke, the Tufts University fellow working on the Citizens’ Initiative Review project team this summer. As part of Ian's work, he'll be preparing a weekly blog exploring topics related to CIR and the initiative and referendum system in Massachusetts. June 10, 2016.

Given the CIR‘s core goal – to help voters better understand confusing ballot questions – it seemed prudent for me to spend some time hearing from voters themselves. I elected to hop on the Red Line train to Davis Square in Somerville, the nearest T-stop to my beloved Tufts University. Since the extension of the Red Line to the square in the 1980s, the area has become a bustling hub – host to restaurants and other businesses, along with the occasional flea market or activist street band festival.

When I walked out of the T-Stop and across the busy crosswalk on Holland Avenue, a good deal of people were scattered across the brick-cobbled triangle of open space outside J.P. Licks’ Ice Cream. 

I soon found myself sitting on a bench next to Rick Beaulieu, a Catholic priest taking a break from walking his dog, Lily. Beaulieu, whose primary residence is in Marblehead, and I started a twenty-minute long conversation about everything from recyclable bottles to the merits of representative government.

“The first time I voted in Massachusetts was probably in 1970” he told me when I asked. As we switched to the topic of ballot questions, he was unabashedly honest about his current awareness of the measures that he would be asked to vote on in five months.

“I don’t even know how many are on there. When the election gets closer, I’ll probably put the time in to learn more about them.”

Beaulieu said he believed that ignorance of the ballot measures themselves was likely universal.

Somerville resident Grace Peters, who I talked to shortly after, had a similar outlook.

“I’m almost overwhelmed by the amount of junk that I get about the primaries and the national things. Some of its helpful, but sometimes it’s enough already. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m not very aware at all about what the state propositions are for legislative amendments,” she said. “I frankly don't know what can be done to improve access to information.”

Peters told me the most important thing when trying to make sense of ballot questions is reliable information from a trusted source. For her, this means an explanatory pamphlet from the League of Women Voters that she receives in the days prior to Election Day.

A friend of Peters, who originally did not want to be interviewed for this post but peppered in a few comments anyway, chimed in here. “I’m more likely to hear about state issues through my church, which is a social activist kind of church… so there are certain people who are very active in these things and pull the rest of us along.”

Anthony Alleyne, who works in prosthetics at a Boston-area Veterans Affairs Hospital, derives some confidence from the nature of his work, which brings him into contact with countless patients.

“I hear a lot of older people talking constantly and I know their mindset. I know what they believe. As a younger person, I go online, I read stuff - I’m kinda more out there, so I know both sides. I can make a more valid opinion, I sort of see both sides,” he told me.

As far as confronting the possibility that many voters lack a reliable source of information as they are asked to pick a side on initiatives, universal concern was expressed in my conversations. The activity of interest groups was often described as a threat.

“The people who have a huge amount of money that can be spent on advertising in favor of a bill and really flood people that don't have any feelings or aren't very aware of stuff that’s going on and really overwhelm them with scare tactics and fear,” Peters told me. “I’m going back to the bottle bill, which is ancient history now for most people. There was all this advertisement that it was going to hurt businesses and it was going to be a huge drag and on and on. There was a huge amount of money that was spent against that [initial bill].”

Beaulieu also referenced the Bottle Bill in making this case. “There’s a huge impact. Like the bottle bill - the soda companies, the beer companies, grocery stores spent millions to get that defeated. The polling went from wide support to a bad loss overnight.”

I asked Alleyne if he sees many advertisements surrounding the ballot questions most voters aren’t well-versed on. “Oh yeah, all the time,” he answered. “I don’t watch a lot of TV but you see it all the time - especially if you watch something like Fox or CNN.”

Especially considering the sheer number of advertisements, Alleyne told me that he worries that “voters can be swayed very easily,”

Like Alleyne, everyone I spoke with had concerns with the ballot question system. They all wanted to see reform, to try to reform the ballot initiative into a more representative and less easily manipulated system. They all felt that this required voters to have access to better and fairer sources of information. None were sure what that would look like just yet, but this summer we will see if it looks like the Citizens’ Initiative Review.


Academic Assessment of CIR pilot Released

Professor John Gastil--the nation's leading CIR researcher--has completed his academic assessment of the 2016 Massachusetts Citizens' Initiative Review pilot project and it is now public.

Professor Gastil's findings include that: 
-The 2016 Massachusetts CIR panel achieved a high quality of deliberation, which enabled panelists to understand and consider key arguments for and against Question 4.
-The 2016 Massachusetts CIR produced a clear and reliable Citizens’ Statement.
-Voters rated the 2016 Massachusetts CIR Statement as useful and informative.
-Voters shown the 2016 Massachusetts CIR Statement on Question 4 increased their issue knowledge and were eager to share its findings .

To see the full report, head to this link:

Op-ed: Project aims to provide insights on marijuana legalization ballot question [excerpted from the Fall River Herald]


By State Rep. Jonathan Hecht and Peter Levine
“What does it mean to leave the EU?”

According to reports from National Public Radio and other media outlets, Google searches for this and related questions spiked in the UK after the Brexit vote, indicating that some voters may have cast their ballots first and asked questions later.

That phenomenon is not unique. In this country, according to research conducted by the non-profit Healthy Democracy, in Oregon, 75 percent of voters found ballot questions to be confusing, and 66 percent of respondents admitted to voting on questions they didn’t understand, with comparable results from polls in Washington and Colorado.

This year, Massachusetts voters will be asked to weigh in on four ballot questions covering a range of pressing public policy matters. Before they head to the polls, voters deserve high-quality, non-partisan information...
[Click here to read the rest]