Making Ballot Initiatives More Deliberative and Voter-Friendly

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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.