Put citizens back into ‘citizens initiative’ process

This session the Oregon House has an opportunity to move on legislation to help put citizens back in the center of our state’s citizen initiative process.

House Bill 2895 calls for the creation of citizen panels comprised of voters from across the state, who will review measures that have qualified for the ballot and report their findings to voters statewide. The proposal is aptly named the Citizens’ Initiative Review.

The goal behind the reform is to provide Oregon voters with well-reasoned information as they make their voting decisions. It is a sensible alternative to the sound bites and overblown rhetoric that now assault voters during the election season.

As representatives of the League of Women Voters, we steadfastly believe in improving our system of government through citizen participation and reliable information. The Citizens’ Initiative Review approaches that same goal in an innovative way.

A Citizens’ Initiative Review engages a panel of 24 Oregonians in a public review of a statewide measure on the ballot. These registered voters, selected at random to represent the demographic and geographic makeup of the state, are convened over five days to hold an in-depth public deliberation on the measure under review. By participating in hearings where advocates and experts present background information, data, and the pros and cons of the initiative, the panel has the time to fully understand the issue and the diversity to consider competing points of view. It’s a rare opportunity to have a well-reasoned public discussion about these often-contentious issues.

After several days of testimony and deliberation, the panelists develop a "Citizens’ Statement" to report their findings as a new page in the Voters’ Pamphlet.

The League of Women Voters of Oregon evaluated a Citizens’ Initiative Review demonstration process on Ballot Measure 58 last fall. Our League evaluator found the process to be fair and balanced, with both sides of the measure given equal opportunity to present their cases and answer questions of the citizen panel. She observed that participants felt empowered by the process and appreciative of the chance to engage in this form of direct democracy.

We support HB 2895’s aim to expand a pilot of the Citizens’ Initiative Review process on one to three measures on the 2010 ballot and to print the citizens’ statements in the Voters’ Pamphlet. Continuing the pilot would allow for testing various ways to improve the process to make it as trustworthy, economical and logistically practical as possible. The 2010 review would be grant-funded, so the pilot would have no fiscal impact.

Establishing official, fair, and open public hearings on ballot measures, and then providing to all voters the findings of the Citizens’ Initiative Review, is one way to restore integrity to Oregon’s initiative process.

Just as Oregon was the first state to use the citizens’ initiative process, we are the first state looking at conducting a Citizens’ Initiative Review of ballot measures. The timing couldn’t be better.

Marge Easley is the President of the League of Women Voters of Oregon. Kappy Eaton is the Governance Coordinator for the League of Women Voters of Oregon.