California’s ballot initiative process has many problems. A big one is that there are few neutral forums so that people can discuss and educate themselves on ballot measures.

Other states do better than we do this on this. Oregon, for example, has a jury-like process for reviewing ballot initiatives that has been exported to other Western states. But that process typically takes a week. Is there anything shorter?

There is now, in Arizona. A process called Civil Dialogue was just applied to a statewide measure, Prop 123, last month. I had the privilege of watching the process over two hours on a weeknight in Phoenix. The Institute for Civil Dialogue at Arizona State University put on the dialogue and the university’s Participatory Governance Initiative, with which I am affiliated, supported and hosted it.

The evening started with a very complete and detailed presentation of Prop 123 by a think tank analyst—not only the measure’s contents, but also the story of how it ended up on the ballot. It’s a strange story—a ballot measure that involves school funding and a land trust, and that is linked to a settlement of litigation against the state. I won’t give you all the details, because they won’t matter to a California audience. Audience members then asked questions.

The ground rules of the conversation were laid out – the need for civility, the advice to be passionate but not hostile, avoid framing the dialogue as an argument, and to be sure to listen but not interrupt.

Then the question was asked: is Prop 123 good for Arizona?

And the dialogue process kicked in. It wasn’t a debate among experts, as you often see in California. The audience members themselves discussed the measure. First, they were asked to consider their positions. Then the moderator asked for volunteers.

Five volunteers, in fact. Each of the five represented a different position on the question of whether Prop 123 is good for Arizona. Those five positions: Agree Strongly, Agree Somewhat, Neutral, Disagree Somewhat, Disagree Strongly. The volunteers sat at the front of the room under signs stating their position.

Then each volunteer was asked to make an opening statement that explained why they had the position they did. Then there was conversation among them, followed by audience comments and questions. Pretty soon, the whole room was discussing the measure, in quite a bit of details.

This had started at 6p. As we approached 8p, the volunteers were asking to give closing statements, and explain if their views or position had changed. Each said they had learned something, though no one had moved particularly far in their position.

But anyone who had participated had a pretty good understanding of the measure.

We sure could use Civil Dialogue like this in California as we head into another ballot measure election this fall.