the Massachusetts Citizens Initiative Review

A Citizens Initiative Review is a very clever innovation. A randomly selected jury of citizens assesses a pending ballot initiative or referendum, deliberates, and produces an explanation (and in some versions, an opinion) of the measure that is disseminated to the voters at large. It’s a promising form of voter education, a way to counter money in politics, and even an experiment in connecting high-quality, relational, but small-scale politics to the mass scale. (I think the gap between human-sized politics and public policy is one of the flaws of our current system.) My CIRCLE  colleagues evaluated the degree to which the Oregon Citizens Initiative Review was covered in the media and found good results.

This summer, we will bring the CIR to Massachusetts. As Michael P. Norton of State House News Service writes:

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 18, 2016….In an era of expensive initiative petition fights, Watertown Rep. Jonathan Hecht this year will lead a new way for voters to scrutinize a ballot question and then inform their fellow voters of their findings. …

In the coming weeks, a Massachusetts Citizens’ Initiative Review Advisory Board featuring Democrats and Republicans will notify the campaigns pressing forward with November ballot questions that one of their proposals will be chosen for a vetting process unlike any that’s occurred in Massachusetts. …

Hecht and the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University are partnering with Healthy Democracy, which implemented Oregon’s citizens’ initiative review system in 2010, on a privately funded examination of a Bay State ballot question. …

Project organizers plan in June to assemble 20 Massachusetts voters, a group that will be balanced to reflect the demographics of the state’s electorate. In July, the advisory board will select the ballot question that will be the focus of the review. From Aug. 25 through Aug. 28, at the Atrium School in Watertown, the citizens panel, led by professional moderators, will conduct a public appraisal of the ballot question, hearing from supporters, opponents and policy experts. The panel will then put together a statement of findings and disseminate it in September and October, using traditional and social media and in the process potentially influencing voter opinions on the chosen ballot question. 

Hecht said project organizers will send a mailer to 10,000 randomly selected voters inviting them to participate in the pilot. Twenty will be selected from those who indicate a willingness to participate.

Students from the Harvard Kennedy School, Suffolk University and Tufts University will assist with staffing for the project, handling policy research and other tasks. An evaluation of the effort will be led by John Gastil, a professor of communications at Penn State who plans to examine the quality of the deliberations and whether the findings improved voter knowledge and understanding of the question.

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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.