Pilot project could improve state elections

Never underestimate the wisdom of Oregon voters. That is a guiding premise behind an experiment in having a group of citizens critique proposed ballot measures.

The Oregon Senate approved the proposal on Tuesday, sending House Bill 2895 to Gov. Ted Kulongoski for his signature.

That action follows the Senate’s approval Monday of legislation that would give the secretary of state greater power to crack down on petition circulators who fraudulently collect voters’ signatures. House Bill 2005 also is on its way to the governor’s desk.

Tuesday’s approval came on a bill that would give voters more information about the initiatives’ potential effects.

As a one-time pilot project, it would authorize a panel of randomly chosen citizens to review one to three initiatives on the 2010 ballot. Those citizens would meet for several days, look at the pros and cons of a measure, and write an evaluation for inclusion in the Oregon Voters Pamphlet.

Grants would be sought to pay for the work, so it shouldn’t cost the state anything.

The concept is that voters can make better decisions when they have straightforward, unbiased information from a source they can trust: their fellow Oregonians.

The Voters Pamphlet has grown so thick with pro and con arguments for initiatives that it routinely requires two volumes — one for measures and the other for candidates.

People on either side pay to have their arguments published, which is a fine way to identify a measure’s supporters and opponents, but a bad way to judge the merits. Meanwhile, sorting through that maze of information and argumentation can be a confusing, time-consuming challenge for voters.

HB 2895 follows up on an experiment from last fall’s election. Healthy Democracy Oregon convened 23 registered voters to examine Measure 58, dealing with non-English learners. The panelists created a statement summarizing their views after hearing from proponents, opponents and a variety of experts.

That was a worthy process, but the impact will be greater by having a page of results published in the Voters Pamphlet, as the legislation allows.

This is the kind of experiment in citizen democracy that Oregonians tend to embrace: It’s not telling them how to vote; it’s giving them more information on which to base their vote. And it tests the concept on a small scale.

If evaluations show that the pilot project was fruitful, the "citizens initiative review" could substantially improve Oregon’s election process.