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Building a Better Ballot: Can a group of diverse strangers save Oregon from special interests?

Carl Killius is a political un-extremist. An unemployed contractor who specializes in carpentry work, Killius was a conservative Democrat who switched parties during the Reagan era.



Carl Killius is a political un-extremist. An unemployed contractor who specializes in carpentry work, Killius was a conservative Democrat who switched parties during the Reagan era. Now, he's a moderate Republican who finds himself agreeing with Democrats on certain issues. Still, when Killius was presented with a ballot during the last general election cycle, he threw up his hands in frustration and anger over what he felt was overly vague and misleading language. Killius said it was the text of the controversial Measure 66 and 67 tax measures that gave him fits. He literally walked away from his vote-by-mail ballot three or four times in disgust rather than fill it out. Election day came and went, but Killius' ballot remained on his kitchen counter. He couldn't bring himself to cast a vote.

While Killius' story is perhaps an outlier, there is plenty of evidence that other Oregonians are struggling to make sense of their ballots, particularly with regard to the initiative process. Corporations and political action committees have spent millions of dollars in recent years trying to influence which box voters will check on their ballot. And they're often successful. It's one of the down sides of Oregon's initiative process that's been in place for more than 100 years. The initiative provision, which allows ordinary citizens the power to make laws and even change the state's constitution is responsible for some of the state's most monumental legislation, including women's suffrage, property tax limits, and mandatory minimum sentencing, among other things. All told, Oregonians have enacted more than 300 measures since the initiative process was adopted in 1902. But in recent years the initiative process has, according to some observers, become more about the power of cash than the power of constituents.

Consider the case of Measure 50. That's the measure that would have, by contemporary standards, imposed a modest tax on cigarette sales to help fund an early childhood health initiative, but was defeated by voters after Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds poured nearly $12 million into the campaign against Measure 50. Add in evidence of fraud among professional petition gatherers that has become integral to the initiative process, and that Oregon's century-old experiment with direct democracy is losing its luster, or at least is in need of a minor overhaul.

It was against this backdrop that Tyrone Reitman and his friend Elliot Shuford began brainstorming about how to restore some balance. From of a few casual conversations between the then University of Oregon grad students emerged an idea that has since grown into something that they, and growing number of others, believe could help transform how Oregonians think about politics. This year the organization founded by Reitman and Shuford, known as Healthy Democracy Oregon, conducted a landmark pilot project that brings dozens of everyday citizens together to help review and analyze ballot measures before they are sent out to voters. Dubbed the Citizens' Initiative Review, or CIR, the process is a non-partisan effort to inject some objectivity and unbiased analysis into the initiative process by bringing volunteer citizens together to vet initiatives in a constructive environment. The results of their research and discussions are to be published for the first time in the voter's pamphlet this spring as part of the pilot project. The hope is that voters will refer to the information provided by the citizens' review panel before they check their box, particularly if they are unsure about a particular issue. Reitman said the idea isn't to influence how people vote, but rather to help ensure that voters are casting ballots that actually align with their personal beliefs. It's something that Reitman and others fear isn't always happening when the dialogue is presented in sound bytes and poll-tested slogans that are designed to elicit emotional rather than intellectual responses.

"Late in the 2005 election cycle, I threw up my hands about how voters were being treated as far as the information they were being provided in the initiative process," said Reitman.

At that point, he and Shuford had already discussed a similar pilot initiative review project that Washington state was using. Reitman said that discussion helped to plant the seed of Healthy Democracy Oregon and the CIR. A few months after the election, Reitman contacted Minnesota's Jefferson Center. The center had developed an internationally recognized program that it dubs the "citizen's jury," which has essentially served as the organizational and intellectual framework for the Citizens' Initiative Review. With the Jefferson Center's support, Reitman and Shuford started to assemble their own pilot project in Oregon. They found an early supporter in then state Senator and now Secretary of State Kate Brown. Reitman said a lot of people expressed interest in the concept, but Oregon politicians wanted to see it in action before they would support it. So Healthy Democracy Oregon (HDO) launched a pilot to test the CIR process in 2008, using the Bill Sizemore-backed Measure 58. The measure, which was ultimately rejected by voters, would have limited how many years of non-English instruction that schools can offer foreign-language speaking students. The panel spent the better part of a week interviewing opponents, proponents and independent experts, including educators, before drafting pro and con statements. While a majority of the panel voted to oppose the measure, Reitman said it was the process more than the result that he wanted to test. In the end, both opponents, including the Oregon Education Association and proponents, including Sizemore, endorsed the citizen review.

"It's one of the few instances that we had Sizemore and labor agreeing on something," Reitman joked.

Not everyone is racing to embrace the Citizens' Review, however. And the biggest test - whether citizens actually use the statements provided in the voters guide to make better-informed decisions in November - is yet to come. At least one participant, the Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance, has blasted the review as biased and unproductive. The group, which is led by ex-state legislator and former gubernatorial candidate Kevin Mannix, is backing a new sentencing law that will appear on the November ballot as Measure 73. Pre-election polls show a slight majority of Oregonians support the measure that would create longer sentences for some repeat drunk drivers and sex offenders. However, an overwhelming majority of the 24-member citizen panel rejected the measure at the end of the weeklong review. But OAA didn't wait for the results of the ballot before issuing a press release condemning the process. Among other things, OAA said that it had inadequate time to prepare for the review. (Healthy Democracy Oregon had initially planned to review one of the casino construction measures that was ultimately pulled from the ballot.) OAA said also that HDO did not provide enough time for presenters and that it had not adequately screened its panelists for impartiality.

"We have a whole bunch of well-meaning citizens boxed into a room by some of the political intelligentsia who brought in their witness to present their agenda," Mannix said.

For his part, Reitman said that it is the panelists, not HDO, who decide which witness will be called. He dismissed the notion of a bias among the panelists who are screened by the organization to ensure they have a balanced representation of Oregon, which includes political as well geographic and demographic considerations.

"I don't know how you can call 24 citizens from across the state a political intelligentsia," Reitman quipped.

Mannix isn't the only person to find flaws in the CIR. Clatsop District Attorney Josh Marquis appeared before the panel to argue against the other measure that HDO examined, Oregon's Medical Marijuana dispensary initiative, which will appear as Measure 74. Marquis offered his observations with a caveat, as far as law enforcement officials go he's a relatively pro-marijuana D.A. who has argued publicly to have marijuana decriminalized (though not necessarily legalized). Marquis said he agreed to testify before the CIR at the request of the Clatsop County sheriff, who happens also to be a friend. Marquis, who is a bit of a history and political buff as well as a star prosecutor who recently helped win a guilty conviction against Deschutes County murderer Randy Guzek, said that he found a lot of positives about the process as a whole. However, he said he thought the review was too long and too easily influenced by individual panelists who appeared to come in with a strong opinion, a criticism that echoed Mannix sentiments. Unlike Mannix, though, Marquis said he thought that the CIR could be a useful tool for voters if it were streamlined and tweaked.

"The problem that they have is there is no way of testing for bias and self-selection," said Marquis, with reference to the notion that people who volunteer for an assignment like this are more likely to have an opinion than, say, a jury that is selected at random and then put through a voir dire process.

"The group that I met with were a fair cross section, but there were obviously two or three people who rabidly supported marijuana," Marquis said.

"You have to do something to winnow out people who are going to dominate the group. If you put me on one of these citizen initiatives, that wouldn't be fair because I'm a very assertive person and I persuade people for a living," he added.

Interestingly, not all of the participants shared Mannix's and Marquis' observations or concerns. Killius, the general contractor, volunteered for the CIR panel in part because of his experience with the Measure 66 and 67 ballots. He said the only shortcoming was the lack of any real passionate opposition to the medical marijuana dispensary law. However, he said that both sides were given ample opportunity to make their case.

Killius counted himself among those whose own opinions were changed by the testimony he heard and the research that the group did over the course of the week. A retired Navy sailor, Killius said he had been fed the government propaganda on marijuana for years and tended not to question it. After several days immersed in the subject, Killius said he came to view medical marijuana as medicine. As such, Killius said he couldn't oppose a system that would prevent patients from having to search out their prescriptions on the black market.

"It changed my perspective greatly. I wish every Oregonian could have a portion of what we went through to weigh their decision on," Killius said.

Whether that will happen though is an open question at this point. HDO has raised tens of thousands of dollars to date to conduct its pilot projects. It's not clear how long it could continue to raise money privately for the quasi-public process - each review costs about $120,000 to facilitate. Reitman said he doesn't expect the legislature to step up with funding for the CIR in the current climate. Nor is there any guarantee that lawmakers will vote to continue the CIR beyond the current test phase. Opponents like Mannix are clear that they don't want the CIR rolled into what he says is an already overregulated initiative process and certainly not at any public expense.

"I happen to think in this day and age when we are better educated and have better access to information than they did 100 years ago when we started the initiative process that we let voters have at it - and politicians beware," Mannix said.

For his part Reitman believes that the evidence will show that an independent review is a needed service for contemporary voters working in a climate that is filled with so much misinformation. But he's done all the work that he can do, at least in this election. Now it's time to wait and see with fingers crossed and ears tuned into the white noise that is bound to come pouring out of television sets and radios as the election cycle enters its final weeks of the campaign.

A Brief History of Oregon's Initiative Law

Oregon was the third state to adopt a direct democracy law when voters overwhelmingly voted to amend the state's constitution in 1902. Oregon was part of a wave of mostly Western states that embraced the initiative process during the heyday of the Progressive Movement. In Oregon, legendary reformer, William U'Ren, a Wisconsin transplant who helped organize the passage of the initiative law as a state legislator, led the charge. Since that time, Oregonians have put forth more than 300 initiatives, making us the nation's leader in citizen-led legislation. Among some of the issues tackled by Oregon voters are: women's suffrage (1912), property tax limitations (1990), mandatory minimum sentencing laws (1994), the recall of elected officials (1908) and ban on new nuclear power plants (1980).

CIR Under the Microscope

How It Works

Though still in its pilot phase, HDO has developed a model for its CIR that can be applied to future elections. In the case of the current election, HDO sent out invitations to 10,000 voters selected at random. Roughly 350 voters returned the surveys expressing interest. HDO reviewed the prospective panelists biographies and developed a representational cross-section of Oregon residents. HDO then selected 48 panelists and split them into two balanced groups and assigned each a measure. The panelists were then brought to Salem where they spent a week hearing from petitioners, opponents and experts.

The Statement

At the end of the week, panelists took a confidential ballot. Those who supported the measure then convened to draft a statement in support and those who opposed met to draft a statement in opposition. Per the legislation that created the pilot project this year, the statements have been published in this year's voters guide. Voters will see a full page, dubbed the "citizens' statement" with the panelists' findings. Equal space will be given to both the pro and con, however, voters will also see how many votes each side garnered.

Going Forward

Health Democracy Oregon's Executive Director Tyrone Reitman said that his organization would conduct a scientific survey after the election to determine if voters saw the citizen's statements and whether they were able to use the information to make more informed choices. Based on that research, Reitman said HDO might come back to the legislature with a proposal to conduct additional reviews or potentially to create a permanent place for the CIR in Oregon's election process.

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