A panel of speakers discussed ways to improve ballot initiatives at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation Tuesday afternoon. The panel specifically focused on the Citizens’ Initiative Review program currently in place in Oregon.
Speaking before a small audience composed of Harvard faculty, students, and members of the community, panelists spoke about Massachusetts House Bill 561, which would create a program modeled on the CIR to analyze ballot initiatives.
Through the CIR, panels of 18 to 24 randomly-selected, demographically representative voters analyze ballot initiatives for an election cycle, and then draft a statement that is included in the voter information packet. Similar programs were piloted in Colorado and in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2014.
The panel, titled “Getting to Yes (or No): Making Ballot Initiatives More Voter-Friendly and Deliberative,” was moderated by Brandeis University professor Carmen Sirianni. The panel consisted of Pennsylvania State University professor John Gastil, executive director of Healthy Democracy Oregon Tyrone Reitman, and Massachusetts State Representative Jon Hecht, who is sponsoring House Bill 561.
Gastil discussed his research on the initiative, and said his team found that, after the CIR was introduced in Oregon, the percentage of Oregonians who read provided statements about ballot initiatives increased between 2010 and 2014, though still remained under 50 percent.
Reitman, whose organization Healthy Democracy Oregon spearheaded the push to introduce the CIR in Oregon, said that it grew out of “common areas of concern that are expressed by voters and by elected officials around the quality of information that voters receive during contested ballot measure questions in particular.”
Hecht said that the Massachusetts bill’s language is closely modeled after the Oregon program, and said he would be open to changes in the bill. He noted that he hopes to see this rolled out as a privately-funded pilot program during the 2016 election cycle.
In a question and answer session following the panel’s introductory remarks, Reitman said that resistance to the CIR largely came from those involved in campaigns surrounding the ballot initiatives.
“The greatest pushback has come from those groups that feel that the CIR takes away their ability to control their campaign message,” said Reitman.
In an interview following the event, Hecht said the panel provided him with an opportunity to get feedback on his proposal from experts and those who have experience with ballot initiatives.
“[This is] a chance to sort of get their sense of how it’s worked and what sorts of problems they’ve encountered along the way, and that’s the kind of information we need in order to think about whether this would be workable in Massachusetts,” Hecht said.
Several audience members reacted positively to the event.
“I thought the panel was very informative and was a really good lineup of speakers,” said audience member Rikki J. Dean, a visiting democracy fellow at the Kennedy School.
—Staff writer Vimal S. Konduri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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