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 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 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.