the verdict on the Massachusetts Citizens Initiative Review

Last summer, working with Healthy Democracy and the office of State Rep. Jonathan Hecht, we at the Tisch College of Civic Life organized the first Citizens Initiative Review in Massachusetts. A representative group of citizens deliberated intensively about a pending ballot initiative to legalize marijuana and co-wrote an informative statement about the initiative’s pros and cons that we helped to disseminate to voters. Watching them at work was a powerful antidote to the atmosphere of civic despair so prevalent in 2016.

Now a research team led by Penn State’s John Gastil has published an evaluation. These are some key findings (verbatim from this site):

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 (marijuana legalization ballot measure).

  • The 2016 Massachusetts CIR maintained either the same or a higher level of deliberation obtained in previous years and in other locations. The review provided participants with high quality information provided by strong teams of advocates and experts and created a respectful and open atmosphere for panelists to engage in deliberation.
  • The vast majority of participants reported learning enough about the measure, and most reported little difficulty processing information, arguments, and underlying values related to Question 4.
  • CIR panelists and neutral observers largely agreed in their assessment that the CIR was both analytically rigorous and conducted in a democratic fashion.

The 2016 Massachusetts CIR produced a clear and reliable Citizens’ Statement.

  • Claims made in the 2016 Citizens’ Statement generally were accurate and verifiable, though some elements reflected unchallenged expert testimony of indeterminate accuracy.
  • The 2016 Massachusetts Citizens’ Statement was clearly written in broadly accessible language, but the Statement could have been stronger with better direction in relation to the ordering of claims and the inclusion of values.

Voters rated the 2016 Massachusetts CIR Statement as useful and informative.

  • Nearly two-thirds of voters (65%) rated the Statement as “easy to read.”
  • The vast majority of voters rated the Statement as either “very informative” (42%) or “somewhat informative” (52%).
  • In deciding how to vote on Question 4, a third (32%) said the Statement was “very helpful,” and another 45% said it was “somewhat helpful.”

Voters shown the 2016 Massachusetts CIR Statement on Question 4 increased their issue knowledge and were eager to share its findings

  • Massachusetts voters were randomly divided into two groups—one reading just official information about Question 4 and the other reading those same materials, along with the CIR Statement. The CIR exposure group improved its knowledge scores on three of the four factual claims tested by becoming both more accurate in its beliefs and more confident in the correct knowledge those voters held.
  • Knowledge gains were found across three different voter groups, including those opposed to Question 4, those in favor, and those undecided on the measure.
  • A majority of voters (57-75%) said they would “probably” or “definitely” share these four pieces of information. This finding held true across all three voter groups (those opposed to, in favor of, or neutral on Question 4), though those in favor or opposed to the measure were somewhat more eager to share the information that aligned with their views.

When asked whether they would continue to believe findings in the CIR Statement even after being refuted by an alternative source, voters were divided. When the hypothetical refutation came from pro and con campaigns, roughly twice as many voters continued to trust the CIR versus those inclined to doubt it. When the refutation came from an “independent expert,” a plurality were more inclined to trust the expert.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.