Demystifying Ballot Initiatives

Tisch College helped establish project to promote understanding of Question 4, about legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts
voting booths
“People are more likely to vote well if they’ve thought about the issue ahead of time,” says Peter Levine. Photo: iStock
October 20, 2016

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If voters know more about often complicated ballot questions, they’ll make better decisions come election time. That’s the premise driving the Massachusetts Citizens’ Initiative Review, a pilot project led by researchers at Tisch College at Tufts.

The Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR), which has been used in statewide elections in Oregon since 2011, brings together a cross section of voters to study a ballot question and share their findings with other voters.

“People are more likely to vote well if they’ve thought about the issue ahead of time,” says Peter Levine, the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at the Tisch College of Civic Life, who is overseeing the Massachusetts trial. “Often, ballot measures either pose narrow technical issues that are hard for the public to get their heads around, or they’ve been written in such a way that they are confusing,” he says. “This is a way of solving the problem of people not knowing how to vote on ballot initiatives.”

Tufts’ role in the project is to oversee the implementation of the experiment, and to ultimately reach a conclusion as to whether the CIR system that worked in Oregon can be similarly helpful to Massachusetts voters in understanding ballot questions.

“As a society, we know how to have productive, valuable, small-scale discussions and learning opportunities, but we have a large-scale political system,” says Peter Levine. “The Citizens’ Initiative Review seems to tackle a fundamental social problem, which is connecting high-quality, small-scale good to powerful, big systems.”Twenty registered Massachusetts voters were selected randomly from a pool of 10,000 to examine the measure to legalize recreational marijuana, which will appear as Question 4 on the state election ballot on Nov. 8. Over four days in August, they heard from proponents and opponents of Question 4 as well as relevant policy experts and ”deliberated intensively, demonstrating focus, civility, open-mindedness and public spirit,” says Levine. The deliberators then jointly wrote a “citizens’ statement” designed to guide voters on the issue. The goal was not to take sides, but to clarify the choices.

State Rep. Jonathan Hecht (D-Watertown) filed the legislative petition to test CIR in Massachusetts. Another partner on the project is Healthy Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit whose aim is to improve political discourse; the group introduced CIR in Oregon.

Massachusetts voters will face three other ballot questions in November—to expand slot-machine gambling, to authorize the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to approve up to 12 new charter schools, and to prohibit owners of pigs, calves raised for veal, and laying hens from confining the animals in a way that prevents them from lying down, standing up or turning around freely.

The Citizens’ Initiative Review advisory board—made up of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Tisch College Dean Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, Assistant House Minority Leader Bradford Hill and academics, nonprofit administrators and policymakers—picked the marijuana question for the pilot because it is high-profile and contentious.

“We wanted to select a topic there was genuine suspense about,” says Levine. “The marijuana issue is also fairly complicated. You have to take into account the relationship to federal law, and the question of how much can be sold and by whom. A ballot initiative necessarily reduces the whole question to a yes or no, but there are many separate issues to consider.”

The four-day meeting, which took place at the Atrium School in Watertown, was a hybrid between a public discussion and a trial, Levine says, as the panel sat through presentations from lobbyists and experts on both sides of the issue, before deliberating and drafting their statement.

The voters found that Question 4 would create a number of jobs in regulatory, law enforcement, legal and licensure areas, and that legalization would improve the safety of the drug. At the same time, the statement pointed out many unknowns, including the long-term health effects of recreational marijuana use.

In Oregon, Citizens’ Initiative Review statements are mailed to every household as part of their voter guides. The Massachusetts pilot has a limited budget, so Levine and his team are relying on the media to distribute the findings. Student fellows from Tufts, Harvard’s Kennedy School and Suffolk University are conducting outreach via social media and free media outlets in advance of the Nov. 8 election to raise public awareness about the CIR statement on Question 4.

“As a society, we know how to have productive, valuable, small-scale discussions and learning opportunities, but we have a large-scale political system,” says Levine. “The Citizens’ Initiative Review seems to tackle a fundamental social problem, which is connecting high-quality, small-scale good to powerful, big systems.”

As with any experiment, Levine says, there is a possibility that the CIR might not be effective. To help evaluate its effect on voter behavior, John Gastil, director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, will examine the deliberation process to determine whether it produced a more accurate understanding of the facts, and whether voters reported that the citizens’ statement was useful.

To read the voters’ report on Question 4, visit the Massachusetts Citizens’ Initiative Review Pilot Project website.

Divya Amladi can be reached at divya.amladi@tufts.edu.

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