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The Citizens Initiative Review: From Pilot to Permanent—An Interview with the Co-Director of Organization Charged with Implementation

Daniel Schugurensky

In many jurisdictions around the world, voters have the power to propose laws directly through ballot initiatives. For its advocates, this element of direct democracy is an essential part of the idea that the power of government truly lies with the people. For its critics, there is one fundamental problem: the initiative process allows citizens to act as legislators without giving them the basic tools that are available for elected representatives, like access to independent data, to experts and to committees that have examined the issues, or the opportunity to deliberate with others about the pros and cons of the proposed laws. This creates a situation where powerful groups can run a campaign based on partial or misleading information and persuade voters to pass legislation that puts significant burdens on the state or that does not necessarily promote the common good.

Is there a way to preserve the democratic benefits of ballot initiatives while reducing their shortcomings? The answer to this question may be found in a remarkable new use of deliberative democracy in Oregon that helps citizens see the entire picture, weigh the different arguments, and check the accuracy of the alleged facts before they vote. In the “Citizens’ Initiative Review,” now passed into law and an integral part of the initiative process itself in Oregon, randomly selected citizens hear both sides of the issue, consult with experts, deliberate among themselves, vote on the initiative, and write a short statement that summarizes the arguments for and against. This statement is included in a ‘voters’ pamphlet’, which is distributed to the electorate before the elections so voters can know what a randomly selected panel of citizens thought on the initiative, and why.

Elliot Shuford is co-director of Healthy Democracy Oregon, a nonprofit organization that in the last five years has been implementing and refining the Citizens’ Initiative Review. He has worked as a performance auditor for the State of Oregon, and had internships with US Senator Mark O Hatfield and the Department of Human Services. He was a member of Portland’s Citizen Campaign Commission that assisted the city with its publicly financed election system. Elliot enjoys climbing and back-country skiing, and this led him to become a member of Portland Mountain Rescue. He also has training in several methods of group process and has worked as a professional facilitator. When he pursued a Master’s of Public Administration at the University of Oregon, he became interested in new democratic processes and met Tyrone Reitman, with whom he co-founded Healthy Democracy Oregon.

In March of 2012, Elliot Shuford participated in a colloquium on deliberative democracy organized by the Participatory Governance Initiative of Arizona State University. In this interview with Participatory Governance Initiative co-director Daniel Schugurensky, Elliot recounts the history of the “Citizens’ Initiative Review,” explains how it works, and shares some of the main lessons learned. He argues that ballot measures are often complex issues that have significant financial and social implications for taxpayers. Given that the stakes are so high, campaigns and interest groups spend millions on campaign tactics like poll-tested messages and sound bytes to shape the debate to their advantage. Their goal is to get votes, and their tactics are primarily meant to influence, not necessarily to inform. He notes that in order to exercise responsibly the right to participate in direct democracy, voters should have reliable and clear information about ballot measures.

Daniel Schugurensky: What is the Citizens’ Initiative Review?
Elliot Shuford: The CIR is a model of public deliberation that seeks to give voters access to more trustworthy and accurate information about ballot measures. More than that, it is a totally different way of doing politics.

How did it start?
We can trace it back to the seventies, to the work of Ned Crosby and Patricia Benn at the Jefferson Center, which is a nonpartisan nonprofit based in Minnesota. They developed and tested something called The Citizens Jury. This provided the basic model for the CIR. They brought together a group of 24 randomly selected citizens to deliberate about topics of public concern, from local issues like local farming practices all the way to national issues like the Clinton Healthcare Plan.

Was this deliberation connected to policy decision-making?
Not as much as the Jefferson Center had hoped. In The Citizens’ Jury there was no direct tie to decision-making. There was an expectation that the well-reasoned, thoughtful recommendations from a group of representative citizens would carry legitimacy and weight for decision makers.

How was the transition from these citizens’ juries to the CIR?
In the 1990s, the Jefferson Center was applying the Citizens Juries to electoral candidates to serve voters. In Washington State, some leaders made the recommendation that they could use this model to evaluate ballot initiatives. Crosby, Benn and others started to develop this idea, which eventually became what is called today, the Citizens Initiative Review. That’s about the time I met Crosby and Benn.

When was that?
I met Ned and Pat in 2000, at a talk they gave in Oregon. They presented the concept of the Citizens Initiative Review, and I was excited because I thought that they were going to do something in Oregon with it. I was ready to volunteer! Then I lost touch with them for a while and didn’t think that they were going to pursue this idea further, but in 2004 a friend of mine named Tom Atlee, sent me an email with 10 ideas for electoral reforms that he was promoting. One of them was the CIR., and that kept me interested in the concept.

What were you doing at that time?
I was a graduate student in Planning, Public Policy and Management at the University of Oregon. There I met a classmate named Tyrone Reitman, and shared these reform ideas with him. While in graduate school, we had a lot of very lively discussions about these ideas and political change in general. Two years later, in 2006, as I was getting ready to hike for 6 months on the Pacific Crest Trail, I got an email from Ty asking me if I knew if anybody was working on the CIR. At that time, he was working on two ballot initiative campaigns and became increasingly frustrated about how voters were shortchanged by the initiative process.

What were his main concerns?
He realized that people are not empowered by these initiatives the way they could be. He noticed that the facts on the measures that he was working on were not part of the public conversation. Many people would sign an initiative without giving much thought about it, and the campaigns for and against would resort to sound bites to persuade the electorate, but there was never real deliberation. He remembered our discussion on the CIR, and thought that it may be a great improvement to the initiative process. I told him that I could probably track down Crosby and Benn and see if they were still working on this idea.

Were they?
Fortunately they were still interested in implementing this idea, and were actually trying to do it in Washington State. I contacted them, and set a meeting between the four us in Castle Rock, Washington, which was half way between our respective residences, at a terrible little diner. Nothing concrete and solid came out of that, but we got to know each other better and it seemed that Ty was very committed to work on it.

And you?
I went to Mexico to start my hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, which I finished hiking in October, so I was back in Oregon for the November 2006 elections.

What happened next?
After that election, Ty started to do some research on whether we could run an initiative campaign to create the Citizens Initiative Review in Oregon. We proposed a plan to Ned and Pat, who decided to fund the initial stages of lobbying the legislature and perhaps running the initiative campaign A few months later, we decided to take a slower and more methodical approach.

Why was that?
The legislature, initiative advocates, and others told us: “We want to see how this model works.” So, we decided that it was appropriate to start with a demonstration or field test to apply this idea in a real-world setting.

What was this field test about?
The subject of the review, which took place in September 2008, was a ballot measure to limit English as a Second Language Instruction in Oregon. We brought a panel of 24 randomly selected citizens to deliberate about this measure for five days, from 9 am to 4 pm. The panel was balanced demographically by age, gender, ethnicity, education level, party affiliation, and place of residence.

Due to it’s length, this interview has been split into two parts. The conclusion of this interview, which discusses the selection of participants, implementation and results of the field test, will be posted this Thursday, March 29, 2012.

Daniel Schugurensky is part of the Participatory Governance Initiative at Arizona State University. Email: [email protected]

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