Presentation to focus on improving ballot initiative process

The public is invited to attend a free session at ASU’s West campus to examine a process being used in Oregon that helps voters make informed decisions about ballot initiatives.

The Participatory Governance Initiative of ASU plans to host the discussion from 3 to 4:30 p.m., March 6, in room 199, of the CLCC Building. The West campus is located at 4701 W. Thunderbird Road in Phoenix.

The session features special guest John Gastil, a Penn State University professor and leading expert on deliberative democracy. Gastil authored a report on the Oregon experiment.

Article 4 of Arizona’s Constitution gives voters the power to propose laws through ballot initiatives. For many, this component of direct democracy is an essential part of the idea that the power of government truly lies with the people. However, ballot initiatives are not without problems. Critics argue that it is sometimes too easy for organized groups to run a campaign based on partial or misleading information and to persuade voters to pass legislation that puts significant burdens on the state.

Is there a way to preserve the democratic benefits of ballot initiatives while reducing their shortcomings? The answer may be found in an Oregon experiment that helps citizens to see the entire picture, weigh the different arguments, and check the accuracy of the alleged facts before they vote.

In the “Citizens’ Initiative Review,” now an integral part of the initiative process in Oregon, 18 to 24 randomly selected citizens hear both sides of the issue, consult with experts, deliberate among themselves, vote on the initiative, and write a short statement that summarizes the arguments in favor and against. This statement is included in the voters’ pamphlet, so that voters can know what a randomly selected panel of citizens thought about the initiative and why.

“Ballot initiatives often address complex issues and can have multiple possible consequences. Citizens often have hard time making a decision. The problem is not that they cannot find advice about how to vote but that they cannot be sure whose advice to trust,” said Amit Ron, an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

“I believe that democracy is the best way to make decisions about how to live together but that it is a complex institution,” said Ron, who conducts research focusing on democratic theory. “Democracy requires a complex set of institutions that allow for informed discussions among citizens and between citizens and their representatives. The Citizens’ Initiative Review in Oregon encourages civic engagement and dialogue among citizens that focuses on concrete policy choices rather than grand ideological stands.”

In addition to the West campus session on March 6, ASU’s Participatory Governance Initiative has scheduled discussions with Gastil at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus on March 6 from 10:30 a.m. to noon at the College of Public Programs, Room 822, and at the Tempe campus on March 7 from 10:30 a.m. to noon in the School of Social Transformation, West Hall, Room 135.

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