Oregon Bright Spot: Citizen Engagement and Voter Education

Oregon Bright Spot: Citizen Engagement and Voter Education

Citizen Engagement and Voter Education on Ballot Initiatives

The Issue

In the Northwest region, all states allow for citizen initiatives. Most of these states ratified their processes during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) as a reaction to unbridled corporate power and corrupt political machines. Information about proposed ballot initiatives, however, varies greatly by state. All provide information online with the full text of the initiative, though not all mail copies to all addresses, provide a full explanation, offer pro/con arguments or include a fiscal note.

 

State

Ratification

Distribution

Explanation

Pro/Con

Fiscal Note

Alaska

1956

Mail, online

Yes

Yes

Yes

Idaho

1912

Mail, online

Yes

Yes

No

Montana

1904

Mail, online

Yes

Yes

Yes

Oregon

1902

Mail, online

Yes

Yes

Yes

Washington

1912

Mail, online

Yes

Yes

Yes

Wyoming

1968

Online

No

No

No

 

In 1998, voters in Washington passed I-200, an initiative to ban public affirmative action policies, by a wide margin. Advocates for retaining affirmative action complained that the ballot language was confusing.

“Shall government be prohibited from discriminating or granting preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education, and contracting?”

In addition to examples that confuse voters, the ballot initiative process is the preferred mechanism for well-funded narrow interests to circumvent the traditional legislative process. What is the role of the state in providing clear, unbiased information such that voters can make an informed decision about ballot initiatives? Further, how can voters meaningfully engage in the policy development process to craft good proposals for the electorate to consider? The Citizen Initiative Review process in Oregon provides an innovative example of voter education and citizen engagement.


Citizen Initiative Review in Oregon

In 2011, the Oregon Legislature established the Citizens' Initiative Review Commission to oversee the Citizen Initiative Review (CIR) process. In a CIR, organizers select a panel, made up of a random sample of two dozen voters who are demographically and politically diverse. The panelists meet for up to five days to learn and deliberate about a ballot initiative that will be voted on in an upcoming election. During the CIR, panelists engage with advocates and stakeholders supporting and opposing the initiative, as well as neutral policy experts. The panelists deliberate to identify important facts about the initiative, decide whether to support or oppose the initiative, and identify reasons to justify their position. The deliberations are structured and led by a moderator, who ensures that each panelist’s voice and opinion are heard and considered.

At the end of the CIR, the panelists write a Citizens’ Statement that sets out the facts about the initiative that they agree on, the number of panelists supporting and opposing the initiative, and the rationale. The Citizens’ Statement is then made available to the public and the media and included in the official voters’ guide.

The Impact

The goal of the CIR was to ensure that voters could receive independent, factual information about citizen initiatives that were on the ballot. According to researchers who looked into the CIR and reported their findings for the Democracy Fund, “one finding consistent between the 2010 and 2012 research reports was that reading the CIR Statement increased voters’ knowledge levels. The 2014 surveys replicated that finding, principally through a variety of survey experiments.” The Oregon CIR has been so successful that the process was largely adopted, with small alterations, by the State of Arizona. Oregon also received the International Association for Public Participation’s Award for North American Project of the Year and Project of the Year internationally in 2013.

The Role of Philanthropy

In 2003, Minnesota-based philanthropists Ned Crosby and Pat Benn wrote Healthy Democracy, which outlined ways to use deliberative democracy in the ballot initiative process. A prime motivation in the concept for CIR was to develop policy proposals through a randomly selected panel, as well as to review those advanced by interest groups. The couple traveled throughout Washington State in 2004 to promote the idea of CIR. With an early endorsement from the Association of Washington Cities, Crosby and Benn lobbied state legislators codify the concept. Though a bill was introduced in 2007, it languished in committee.

Turning their attention to Oregon, Crosby and Benn teamed with two recent policy school graduates, Tyrone Reitman and Elliot Shuford, established and funded Healthy Democracy Oregon, the organization that would ultimately carry out the CIR process. After a trial in 2008, the State of Oregon authorized the CIR to examine and publish in the voters’ pamphlets examinations of two initiatives that would be on the 2010 ballot. The following year, the state legislature passed a measure making CIR an official part of the statewide initiative process.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Supporting efforts that engage citizen input on ballot measures builds a more informed, trusting electorate. 
  • Philanthropy can play a catalytic role in promoting, testing and building innovating processes that increase civic engagement. 

Want to learn more about other democracy initiatives?

Visit our Democracy Lens project to access data and other case studies on democracy funding for each state in our Northwest region.