Healthy Democracy: Citizens' Initiative Review

Trustworthy information about confusing ballot measures, for the people, by the people. Direct democracy led by ordinary citizens, not monied interests. 

The Problem

The practice of direct democracy in the US is one of this country's most compelling historical meta-narratives of genuine citizen power. In states with this right to direct lawmaking, many of the great equalizing reforms came about, from key labor laws to landmark election reforms. Across the country voters continue to make major policy choices on the ballot. The problem, however, is that direct democracy itself suffers from many of the same ailments it was meant to correct. While it's always been subject to emotional manipulation and the influence of money, it is impossible to ignore the alarming trajectory that this type of direct democracy has taken over the past two decades—from an imperfect mechanism for expressing the public’s will to an overt expression of special interest power. Our choices on ballot measures can significantly affect public revenue decisions, to say nothing of key social issues that have found their way onto the ballot that shape the cultural and political landscape of our states and country. Because the stakes are often so high, campaigns for and against ballot measures routinely spend multiple millions of dollars in advertising for each initiative. As a result, when it comes to voting on these critical issues, citizens are inundated with confusing campaign messages which are often full of misleading or even false information. Polls have consistently shown that while large percentages of voters often find ballot measures quite confusing, they still cast votes on the very measures they report they do not understand.

The Solution

The Citizens’ Initiative Review (or CIR), created by Healthy Democracy in 2010, engages citizens to help their fellow voters make better informed policy decisions that arise from the initiative process. This deliberative process brings together a randomly-selected, demographically-balanced “jury” of citizens and gives them the time and resources to fairly evaluate a ballot measure. At the conclusion of each review, panelists draft a statement highlighting the most important fact-based findings about the measure and the most strong and reliable pro and con arguments. In some cases, those results are then placed in the official voters’ guide for that state or local jurisdiction. In addition to the formal research highlighting the effectiveness of the CIR, there is the equally important perspective of the now hundreds of citizens who have participated in previous CIR processes. Surveys of past citizen panelists show that they strongly support the CIR program not only for the important service it provides to the voting public, but for the powerful impact it can have on the citizen panelists themselves. Consider these comments collected from previous CIR panelists: -“Participating in the Citizens’ Initiative Review has been a unique and enriching experience for me. This opportunity to work side by side with fellow voters has affirmed my belief in the value of public participation in the democratic process.” -“Being younger, voting and voter information is not something that I was concerned about. Now that I’ve been through the Review, I’ll be a lot more involved with the voting process.”

Planned Use Of Funds

Funds would be used to replicate the CIR in other states and regions in the US. It is well known in a few states, and once other states become aware of it, they are eager to pilot the program Expansion of the CIR means expansion of its two key overarching goals:

  1. Reliable Voter Information: The CIR process provides voters with strong and reliable information that directly helps them sort through competing claims about ballot measures and reduces the undue influence of paid political advertisements in voters’ decision-making process. An independent, expert evaluation funded by that National Science Foundation found the CIR panels were analytically rigorous and fairly conducted, and that the Citizens Statements were widely used and valued by large percentages of voters.
  2. Unique Citizen Engagement: The CIR engages individuals that often lack a strong voice in civic life and governance, such as youth, people from rural locations, and communities of color. By putting voters in this unique and powerful role, the CIR provides citizen panelists with a positive experience of civic responsibility as this diverse group works together respectfully, using their differences to produce meaningful citizen-driven evaluations of ballot measures. Our experience over the past eight years has shown us that in addition to providing voters with trustworthy information on ballot measures, the CIR also the CIR builds enthusiasm for public engagement, emphasizing the value of diverse perspectives, and expanding support for citizen-led direct democracy.

Stage of Development

  • Early Stage
  • Established Prototype
  • Scaling
  • Other

Organization to Receive Funds

Healthy Democracy

This project was nominated by: