Dateline Portland where I’m here to observe Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) process. As Joe Mathews noted in these pages a couple weeks ago after seeing this election cycle’s first review in Salem, the CIR offers an intriguing glimpse of what it’s like to hit an ostensibly democratic practice (the ballot initiative) with more democracy.

Again, the CIR involves gathering a group of 24 randomly selected voters who form a “citizens’ jury”, which over the space of several days, reviews the pro/con arguments on a particular November ballot initiative. Towards the end of their group deliberation, the jury votes on the actual initiative then composes “Citizens’ Statements” for both the majority and minority camps along with the “Key Findings” from the discussions with experts that they felt were most important for voters to keep in mind.  Participants are paid a stipend of $750.00 each along with room/board and travel expenses.

All of the CIR’s results are printed prominently with the respective initiative in the state’s voters’ pamphlet, providing the state’s voters with a “citizen’s view” of the measure after they’ve had a chance to process through all the arguments and discuss what elements mean the most to them with fellow Oregonians. The CIR’s are completely open to the public, and it is streamed live on the Internet for anyone to observe.

This is the second election cycle in Oregon that has utilized the CIR results in their voter guides, but the first to be conducted under the aegis of the newly state-sanctioned Citizens’ Initiative Review Commission. Passed during the 2011 Legislative Session, House Bill 2634 directed the creation of the Commission with members designated by the Governor and the Legislature in a bipartisan process. After a pilot run in 2010, the CIR is now a permanent part of Oregon elections, but its funding continues to come from individuals and foundations.

Currently, not all ballot initiatives go before a CIR, as they are prioritized by measures that either are constitutional amendments and/or those that would carry a significant fiscal impact. This year the two initiatives reviewed included Prop 85, which would apportion some corporate tax revenues to K12, and Prop 82, which would amend the state constitution to permit private casinos in Oregon.

After observing the discussions here for the last couple days, I must say a couple things impress me:

1.     Dealing with Complexity: As you might guess, the arguments around Prop 82 (the one I’m watching) are complicated. From promised job and economic forecasts to the impact of private casinos on the state’s existing lottery and Native American casinos to the moral issues related to gambling more generally, these panelists are hearing conflicting and intricate claims made by “experts” from both sides, yet they are cutting through smokescreens, and asking particularly incisive questions. I can agree with one of the Commission members here observing as well, who served as a CIR panelist in 2010 when she said, “even though we had a few folks in our group who had not graduated high school, it was phenomenal to see the intelligence of our group as we discussed tough issues.”

2.     Speaking with Civility and Responsibility: Though not an overly partisan issue, it’s obvious that CIR participants brought different political perspectives with them this week. And anyone who’s worked with small groups of 20-30 people will tell you that no matter what the issue, some folks just “don’t play well with others”. But with good facilitators and a general patience displayed by the participants, the conversations have been remarkably civil with people listening to and engaging one another. Late yesterday one gentleman remarked to the group: “How many places do you get to go these days to express your opinion with out someone jumping down your throat.” At the same time, I’ve heard several panelists note that their “work” was meant to inform “voters like us” so they had to be especially sure they could defend what they were going to put in the ballot packet.

Could something like this work in California? Possibly. I know folks from the Secretary of State’s office are interested. Some might question, “how could a state the size of California possibly turn the responsibility for something like this over to a group of 24 citizens?” But we entrusted 14 Californians in the Citizens’ Redistricting Commission with actually redrawing our state and congressional district lines; the “product” of the CIR is only (though importantly) meant to inform voters who are making their final decisions.

I could see some modifications to a California CIR process, but a state that could teach us about how to sing the national anthem, might be giving us a good idea on initiative reform.