Citizen Initiative Review – How 20 Ordinary Citizens Can Inform Your Vote

LWVMA president Mary Ann Ashton helped staff the Citizen Initative Review. Here is her first-hand report.

If you’re like most voters, you are just turning your attention to the three questions on your November 6 ballot. And after reading the question summaries or watching TV advertising, you may still be confused. What if there were a better way to find out what you need to know about each question? Oregon uses a process called the Citizen Initiative Review to develop the voter information for each question, and we could do that in Massachusetts too. For now, we have a pilot project which used this process to develop information on Question 1, patient-to-nurse limits.

Twenty ordinary citizens, demographically representing the population of Massachusetts, were selected to convene for four days in early September as part of the pilot. (For more information about how they were selected and other details of the project, you can visit http://www.cirmass.org/.) Facilitators working with Oregon-based Healthy Democracy first trained the participants in several techniques of deliberative democracy. They learned how they would work in groups, developed ground rules, determined the criteria they would use to evaluate strong and reliable claims, and how to develop strong questions. After practicing with these tools, they heard from a panel of proponents and opponents on Question 1, who each provided information to the panelists.

Proponents and opponents each provided seven statements (or “claims”) about their position. On the second day, the participants developed and edited questions on the provided claims and about other things they had heard from the pro and con sides the previous day. They first heard from and asked questions of two panels of independent experts on the topic of patient limits and health care safety. Later in the day they asked questions of the proponents and opponents.

In the last two days, participants first developed and edited their own statements and claims and then edited the statements provided by the pro and con panels. All of these claims were filtered through their “strong and reliable” checklist, and the citizens selected the most compelling arguments. These were then used to first create a summary of the question, and then to generate “best reasons” to vote for and against the ballot question. At the end of day four, the citizens finalized their statement, and held a press conference. You can read their statement here.

I was fortunate enough to have a seat in the room to assist with the typing and production of the work materials during the four days. The best part of the whole experience was hearing the feedback from the 20 participants at the end of the last day. Almost to a person, participants said they had initially felt inadequate to the task ahead of them, and weren’t sure that they would be able to do this. All acknowledged feeling overwhelmed by the amount of material they were asked to absorb, yet by the end all were confident and very proud of what they had accomplished and believed that this effort was the best way to inform other voters about what really mattered about this question. It was a strong affirmation of deliberative democracy, and truly amazing what these 20 ordinary citizens were able to accomplish, all motivated to create the best information available for their fellow voters.

The proceedings were captured by several documentary film crews and news reporters who were also in the room. A recent piece on WGBH provided more context and support for the CIR process.

Rep. Jonathan Hecht (D-Watertown) has introduced legislation in the last two sessions to make this process the law in Massachusetts. This past session, the legislation was voted out of the Joint Committee on Election Laws and into the Ways and Means Committee, but failed to make it further. Rep. Hecht is optimistic that this will move forward in the next session. He has organized and sponsored pilot projects in Massachusetts in 2016 and 2018, along with Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life and Healthy Democracy.

LWVMA has supported the pilot project, with our Executive Director, Meryl Kessler, serving on the Advisory Board. Additionally there is a question in our Ballot Question Study that relates to the use of such a process as Oregon uses, and several others that relate to the quality of information provided to voters currently.

I encourage you to share the information in the Citizen Initiative Review widely with your community so that everyone can benefit from the work that these panelists did.