Honest Deliberation Amidst Polarizing Rhetoric
This is a guest blog post from Robin Gumpert. We hope you will share responses to his post and join the discussion in either the comments below or on the EPP LinkedIn discussion for this topic.
Honest Deliberation Amidst Polarizing Rhetoric
While not the most reliable source of information, I do turn to Facebook to get a flavor for the attitude and emotions my friends and family have about their election season experience. One friend has decided to go underground and completely tune out, bidding his Facebook friends farewell until after November for fear that engaging in discourse will strain and even sever relationships with those he loves. An aunt proclaims her views and then swiftly ‘unfriends’ anyone who opposes those views, especially if they say anything contrary to her chosen Presidential candidate. This has led to the development of factions and avoidance behavior within our otherwise close-knit family. To me, this extreme behavior is reflective of the highly charged rhetoric flooding the airwaves around us. We receive sound bites meant more to confuse and inflame us than inform us around our choices. Is there another way? Oregon says there is, and has passed legislation to promote sound, non-biased ‘Citizen Initiative Reviews’ of measures voters will decide on in this upcoming election.
The Back Story
The Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) was championed in Oregon by Healthy Democracy Oregon starting in 2007. A ‘field test’ of the CIR was conducted in 2008, observed by legislators and interested public and evaluated by the League of Women Voters. Passage of House Bill 2895 in 2009 enabled an official pilot. Healthy Democracy Oregon worked with the Secretary of State’s office, State Elections Office, campaign officials, and policy experts to convene two reviews in 2010. A team led by nationally-recognized researchers, backed by funding from the National Science Foundation, evaluated the Reviews. This impartial evaluation team concluded that the two CIR panels convened in August 2010 engaged in high-quality deliberation, and that the CIR Citizens’ Statements were widely used and helpful to a large percentage of voters.
In June, 2011, the Oregon legislature approved House Bill 2634, legislation making the CIR a permanent part of Oregon elections. Oregon is now the first state in the nation to adopt this innovative policy into law. The law was fully implemented during the 2012 election cycle during which two initiatives were reviewed by citizen panelists and their Citizens Statements were included in the Oregon Voters Pamphlet mailed out to every household in the state.
During a five-day public hearing guided by a team of skilled impartial moderators, panelists hear from advocates for and against the measure under review, and call upon additional policy experts for information about the measure. With input from the pro and con advocate teams, the independent convener (in this case Healthy Democracy) determines a range of additional background witnesses or policy experts that the panelists may choose to hear testimony from over the course of the review. Panelists have the opportunity to directly ask questions of the advocates and experts, prioritize what they want to learn about, and deliberate together. The citizen panel together sorts through the information they’ve gathered to highlight the most important points to share with voters statewide.
At the conclusion of the CIR process, the panelists draft a ‘Citizens’ Statement,’ detailing the most important findings about the measure, as well as reporting how many panelists support or oppose the measure. The ‘Citizens’ Statement’ is then published as a prominent new page in the voters’ pamphlet, and distributed to every voting household across the state.
The Corvallis Gazette-Times writes: “The Citizens’ Initiative Review makes sense…we welcome anything that gives voters an alternative to the screaming sound bites that usually make up most of the debate about initiatives.” Beyond that, as a third-party neutral in the CIR process since its beginning in 2008, I have observed a transformation of the citizen participants, many of whom (from their own reflection) had moved from a place of wariness, for some apathy, and still others trepidation, to a place of commitment to engage in respectful, active discourse with friends, family and neighbors on important election issues. To me, this is the most important benefit we have seen resulting from the CIRs– an engaged citizenry who recognize their civic duty to participate in the democratic process.
Robin Gumpert is a mediator with DS Consulting in Portland, Oregon. She served as a moderator for the 2008 CIR field test, a 2010 pilot, and an official CIR in 2012. In 2009, she also moderated a Minnesota citizen panel using a similar model in which the group deliberated over ‘Election Recounts’. She was appointed to the State’s Citizen Initiative Review Commission in October 2012. The Commission oversees the CIRs in Oregon. The results of the 2012 CIRs can be found at: http://healthydemocracy.org/citizens-initiative-review/2012-cir-results/