An Oregon Experiment in Citizen Governance

Source: Yes Magazine

A new law that puts voters in charge of breaking through political spin could be a first step in making policy decisions that work.

Daily, it seems, we watch as our democracy slips into an increasingly divisive panic attack. Republicans, we’re told, hate Democrats. Democrats, we’re told, hate Republicans. Accountability in our political system seems as tenuous as the economic recovery: Tea Partier, Wall Street Occupier, or none of the above, we all know something’s amiss.

Yet as it is, we have a tradition of successful self-governance more than 230 years in the making. Full of beauty, opportunity, and deep scars, our democracy continues as a grand experiment. Rights have been expanded, greater access to the disenfranchised has been afforded, and our democratic institutions endure.

But we seem to be heading towards a political culture where anything goes—claims go unchecked, questions go unasked, and talking points are simply repeated again and again. The choice, however, between playing political games and governing well is ultimately ours: We are the “self” in “self-governance.”

What would it be like to have balanced panels of voters publicly weigh in on the most controversial problems of our time? What would it look like to have a fair public review of the really tough issues, like health care policy, immigration, and financial regulation? And what if lawmakers were even to request this kind of input to help in their own decision-making, building greater citizen deliberation into how we ‘do’ democracy?

In Oregon, citizens have just taken a major step toward changing the game. In July 2011, Governor John Kitzhaber signed into law a bill that institutionalizes a new form of citizen deliberation as part of our election process. The Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) is an exercise in deliberative democracy. It puts 24 randomly selected voters into a fair public hearing to listen to campaigners, learn the issues, and separate fact from fiction on ballot measures.

For each measure on the ballot, a different panel of 24 voters sorts through the political spin and then summarizes its findings for the voting public to use as they choose on election day.

The authenticity of this approach comes from the simple fact that these panels of voters have no vested interest in the outcome of a CIR. Like a jury, the idea is to perform a public service. Unlike a jury, there are no litigators structuring testimony and calling witnesses—the panel of everyday voters drives the process along.

It’s a relatively new idea (only ten years in the making) that other states with some form of an initiative process already in place should consider as a way to get high-quality information to voters from a source they can trust—themselves.

Traditionally, initiative or referendum votes offer a way for the public to weigh in on proposed laws created outside of or through the legislative process:

1. Citizens petition to put an initiative or referendum on the ballot.

2. Campaigners fight like hell to win your vote with whatever means are at their disposal. Their job is to influence how you vote, not to inform your vote. Some campaigners do a good job of both, but most…well, you be the judge.

3. Citizens vote for or against that measure—either making it law or not—but they do not always feel they know enough about the issue to make an informed decision in light of the non-stop barrage of political spin (accompanied by catchy sound bites like “Measure Six is the Fix” and commercials with montages of wolves, corporate fat cats, or schoolchildren set to spooky music).

Most voters in Oregon support this traditional initiative process. Yet at the same time, large numbers clearly don’t feel confident about their vote when it comes to ballot measures, in large part due to a lack of usable, unbiased information. And that’s a major problem when you have to make critical policy decisions every two years on issues like property rights, gay marriage, taxation, and criminal justice.

The big idea of a Citizens’ Initiative Review is to bring together randomly selected registered voters, demographically balanced to reflect the state’s voting population, to sort through the rhetoric and spin. These are not blue ribbon commission members, policy wonks, lobbyists, or political hacks—the CIR is meant to reflect the state’s voters, not the political establishment.

These are everyday citizens, from all walks of life, brought together to spend an entire week studying a ballot measure in order to make sure that every voter has easy access to the key facts, findings, and arguments for and against the measure (like why the measure is even on the ballot, etc.).

Think Twelve Angry Men, except more like Twenty-Four Empowered Voters, sweating it out over what a major issue on the ballot will or won’t do. Over the course of five full days, a panel meets directly with people behind the campaigns for and against the measure under review, calls on policy experts, and then ultimately deliberates based upon the information gathered. It goes on until the panel is satisfied that it has its questions answered—not spun, not dodged, but actually answered.

At the end of its weeklong study of the measure, the panel drafts a new page for the statewide voters’ guide (mailed to all Oregon households with registered voters) listing the key facts about the measure and the best reasons to support and oppose it. The panel doesn’t tell you how to vote; it’s there to give you better information if you want it.

It’s simple. It’s civil. It’s democracy in a very pure form. And its potential for changing the game is tremendous.

In August 2010, CIR’s were held on the issues of mandatory minimum sentencing for convicted criminals and the legalization of medical marijuana dispensaries. Both are complex issues, with passionate advocates both for and against. Victims of heinous crimes testified, medical marijuana users shared their experiences, and numerous attorneys fought for the campaigns on both sides of each measure. At the end of each CIR, the panels distilled these complex policy questions into what were unarguably the key issues that voters should consider. On election day, voters had access to the CIR statements for the first time, and large percentages of voters benefited from this new source of information.

This Oregon experiment had a wildly successful test run during the 2010 election, winning near-unanimous praise from panelists, campaigners, lawmakers, and newspaper editors statewide. An authoritative independent academic evaluation of the process, funded by the National Science Foundation, highly praised the process for both its fairness and the analytical rigor of the evaluation.

Based upon the success of the CIR’s trial run, a bipartisan team of legislators moved the CIR bill through and onto the governor’s desk. It’s now law, and it’s a national first—a model that can be emulated in other states.

This law was the conclusion of five years of work in Oregon, and appears to be the start of something new in how we do democracy—putting everyday citizens, and authentic deliberation, at the heart of our democratic process.

As participants in a democracy, we deserve nothing less.

Tyrone Reitman wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Tyrone is executive director of the newly formed Healthy Democracy Fund. He and his colleagues at Healthy Democracy Oregon worked from 2006-2011 to establish the CIR in Oregon, and he’s looking forward to what comes next.