A Manageable Improvement to the State Initiative Process?

Ashley Trim and Brian Stewart
Ashley Trim, Executive Director, Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership and Brian Stewart, Pepperdine School of Public Policy, MPP Candidate ’17.

Californians have a love-hate relationship with the Initiative process. Recent surveys by PPIC show that two-thirds of voters are satisfied with the initiative process even though a majority think that special interests have too much control and an even larger majority think the wording of initiatives is “often too complicated and confusing.”

Which begs the question: is there a way to mitigate the drawbacks without eschewing a very popular tool of direct democracy?

In early March, the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy partnered with Oregon-based nonprofit Healthy Democracy to demonstrate how a Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) could help make the California initiative process more transparent, more understandable, and more independent of campaign spending.

A full-scale CIR brings together a randomly selected representative group of citizens to learn about an important ballot measure and draft a guide with key findings and arguments for and against that measure to inform the wider voting population.

It’s a process that’s been adopted by the legislature in the state of Oregon, and has also been tried in Colorado, Arizona and Massachusetts.  But in California, the most active state in the union when it comes to the initiative process, the CIR had yet to be tested.

The Pepperdine demonstration offered just a snapshot of what a CIR might look like in California. It brought together a panel of 18 voters from California universities over the course of three days. And since we are between election cycles, the demonstration looked at Prop 61 (Drug Price Standards) from last November’s ballot.

Panelists drafted questions to ask independent experts and deliberated in small groups in order to fairly evaluate the measure. At the conclusion of the review, the panel presented its findings in a Citizens’ Statement. They also reflected on their experiences. Many noted how hard it had been to find good information leading up to the November election.

“This demonstrates how important it is for voters to be educated before we go to the polls,” said Michael, an undergraduate from California State University Channel Islands, “This process needs to be implemented here in California.”

The Davenport Institute and Healthy Democracy agree, and are hoping that telling the story of the demonstration will help build momentum toward a statewide pilot, perhaps ahead of the 2018 mid-term election, when Californians will doubtless show their love for the initiative process all over again.

A future pilot would convene prior to the election to provide an overview that does not take a position on the measure, but rather offers a multi-partisan perspective on the meaning of the initiative as well as a consensus about which arguments for and against the measure are most valid and compelling.

In Oregon, these results are published in the official state ballot guide. In other states, it is promulgated through traditional and social media and by word of mouth. Since 2008, every Citizens Initiative Review process has been studied by a team of university researchers to identify ways to continue to improve the process. More information about the California Citizen’s Initiative Review can be found here.

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