This week, 24 Oregonians from all walks of life are meeting to try and make the initiative process a little more fair.
As special interest groups and big money continue to play a prominent role in the initiative process, the Citizens Initiative Review will attempt to cut through the propaganda to craft a truly nonpartisan, unbiased opinion of what kind of impact a yes or no vote will have, according to project organizer Tyrone Reitman.
The Citizens Initiative Review is a pilot project, operated by Healthy Democracy Oregon, which began this week with a review of Measure 73 -- which would require mandatory minimum sentences for repeat sex offenses and repeat drunk driving convictions. After hearing testimony by both supporters and opponents, and reading information about the effects of the initiative, the group will craft a "citizen's statement" to be published prominently in the voter's guide. The hearing for Measure 73 will continue through Friday, Aug. 13 at the Salem Conference Center.
Reitman hopes it will improve the initiative and referendum system by creating a more informed voter.
"Campaigns spend heavily to spin their side," he told The Skanner News.
Reitman hopes the citizen's statements will help voters base their decisions "on sound reasoned arguments" instead of the advertising and propaganda put forth by opponents and proponents of measures.
To say that the 24 members of the Citizen's Initiative Review are a better representation of the citizens of Oregon than a jury pool would be an understatement. Reitman and his team set out to find a representative of nearly every recordable demographic difference in the state – ethnicity, economic status, geographic location, sex, education, voting history (frequent and not), partisanship and age.
They sent out 10,000 mailings and got 350 back. From that response, a randomized process led them to select the group of 24. They are paid a lot more than jurors -- $150 a day – and receive transportation stipends and are put up in a hotel in Salem for their week-long hearing.
The pilot project will only be evaluating two measures this year as a way to determine if the citizen's statement had any impact on the way a voter came to his or her conclusion. A new group of 24 citizens will be brought in to evaluate Measure 74 on Aug. 16. That measure would establish a distribution system of medical marijuana for patients.
Reitman says there is one Black member on the jury. That member is from Portland. There are also two other people of color on the panel.
Depending on how the panels and measures are evaluated, Reitman says the $125,000 to $150,000 cost of the evaluations are a pittance when compared to the money spent on the campaigns. According to the League of Women Voters, campaigns can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to upwards of $4 million, depending on who's sponsoring the initiative and what it is.
Reitman hopes the voters of Oregon will view the panel as a valuable public service and vote to fund it. He said the idea of levying a tax on initiative campaigns to help pay for the service is also not out of the realm of possibilities.
The framework behind the Citizens Initiative Review is based on the Citizens Jury Process.
Developed by the Jefferson Center in 1974, a think tank for democratic processes, the process allows decision-makers to hear from a representative group of informed citizens on different areas of policy. Unlike a short telephone pole, the Jefferson Center says the Citizens Jury takes a representative snapshot of the community, gives them the opportunity to learn directly from expert witnesses, deliberate together and present their findings to the public.
The Jefferson Center has been overseeing Citizens Juries in over 31 projects over years. In 2001, the center conducted a similar citizens jury panel for Washington's initiative system. According to Claudia Downing of the League of Women Voters, the project failed to find funding.
In the Washington project's final report, all 25 jury members reported liking it (9) or liking it very much (13). Two members remained neutral and one said they didn't like the process; twenty four recommended that the Citizens Jury become state law.
Unfortunately, Ned Crosby of the Jefferson Center says the implementation of the initiative review proved difficult in the face of the established lobbying groups and other legislative interests. After several years of hearings and substantial interest, the election of 2006 ushered in Democratic committee chairs more interested in politics than policy, he says.
"The result was that we did not get hearings in either chamber in the 2007 session, even though the majority leader in the House spoke to the committee chair," Crosby told The Skanner News. "The Citizens Initiative Review was just too foreign to the way politics is conducted in today's legislatures for the major lobbying groups."
In Oregon, the Citizens Initiative Review pilot project was created through a state law, led by Rep. Chris Harker (D-Beaverton), Rep. Ben Cannon (D-Portland) and Sen. Doug Whitsett (R-Klamath Falls). Crosby said there has been a more step-by-step approach to get legislators and lobbying groups on board with the idea, as well as a committed group that is backing it – Healthy Democracy Oregon.
In addition, researchers from Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin were awarded a $218,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the qualitative and quantitative results of the project.
"They'll determine if there's a difference of how voters comprehend the measures and how they voted," Reitman said.
He said that finding that 10 percent were influenced by the citizens statement would be a positive indication that the panel's work was worth it.
The hearing for Measure 74 will be conducted from Aug. 16 to 20 at the Salem Conference Center. The public is welcome to attend. Healthy Democracy Oregon is attempting to webcast the hearings live online, but the group has been experiencing technical difficulties.