Vote 2014: Citizens’ Initiative Review

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Arizona successfully completed its inaugural Citizens’ Initiative Review, a citizen-participant project to help voters better understand complex ballot issues. For nearly four days, 20 participants who represent a sample of Phoenix voters thoroughly examined Phoenix’s Proposition 487, a pension reform proposal. Andrea Whitsett, CIR project manager at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, and Joe Garcia, communications director for the institute, will discuss the results of the project.

Steve Goldstein: Arizona successfully completed its Inaugural Citizens' Initiative Review, a project to help voters better understand complex ballot issues. For nearly four days 20 participants thoroughly examined the city's proposition 487 a pension reform proposal. Here to tell us what they found out is Andrea Whitsett at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, and Joe Garcia, communications director from the institute. Welcome to you both. Joe, let's start off with having seen what Oregon did with this. Why did you want to bring it to Arizona?

Joe Garcia: Well, we went up there more than two and a half years ago to witness it. We saw a model for direct democracy. That's engaging voters through awareness. Basically it's like a jury system where you bring together 20 individuals, sampling of the electorate or the population. And everybody gets together to study an issue, very complex ballot in addition advertisement then they come up with everyday language on how they can explain to other fellow voters what this means, the pros, the cons, the key findings. It was a way to get away from slick campaigns, misinformation. It was a way voters could talk to voters.

Steve Goldstein: I know this is not partisan. But there is a feeling in general that Arizona politics are quite different from Oregon politics. Did that way in at all?

Joe Garcia: We had to make it an Arizona model, make sure the Latino voters were represented. Especially among independent voters, that's the largest party, if you will, here in Arizona. We had to look at different demographics. It would be an Arizona model but based on a very successful award winning program they have in Oregon.

Steve Goldstein: Andrea, three million in the metro in Phoenix if not more. How did you get it down to 20 people in Phoenix involved in this?

Andrea Whitsett: Certainly. We sent a recruitment mailing to 5,000 randomly selected voters in the City of Phoenix and invited this tomorrow respond with a questionnaire that invited them to respond with some basic demographic information. We were able to create a panel that was truly representative of our area in Phoenix.

Steve Goldstein: Can you take us behind the scenes a little bit, what did it really turn out to be like? Was it smooth? Did people get along, were they civil?

Andrea Whitsett: Absolutely. I applaud the 20 members of the citizen panel, because of the stamina it takes to spend three and a half days going through something on pension reform, which, let's be honest, is not the most exciting issue if you don't have a pension. But I think the thing that's really exciting about the CIR is that it brings people in. It has a huge, tremendous amount of buy-in. People say, I want to be empowered to get to the bottom of this issue and understand it. As Joe said, communicate in effort language with my fellow voters so, they can go to the ballot and be informed about the measure. People were incredibly civil, incredibly respectful. To give you a sense of some of the comments, when they did their concluding circle, when you expect some fatigue has set in. People were saying things like this has restored my faith in the Democratic process. Or this has given me clarity around an issue. It's gone beyond mailers that come in your mailbox.

Steve Goldstein: Joe, did you also hear from the presenters? Did they feel like the process was engaged as they wanted it to be?

Joe Garcia: Yeah, the presenters were fine. I was talking to the Goldwater Representative speaking at Morrison event tonight on pension reform. He thought it was very fair, presented neutral. That should be our role and we live by that. The Morrison Institute for Public Policy played a nonpartisan role. That's one of the reasons we didn't give the up or down on anything. We just gave the key findings of what the 20 panelist participants wanted it to be. We weren't trying to sway the votes and much as trying to inform voters to vote however they see fit.

Steve Goldstein: Did the panelists feel like there were ways to tweak it going forward?

Andrea Whitsett: So far we've had incredibly positive feedback. Oregon has looked at models where they spent more time. We might so-called day and spend a little bit less time. Overall, people felt bringing in external moderators as we did was very valuable. Working with the award-winning model was very valuable to us. We benefited from the tweaks they had already gone through. There was a citizen panelist who she had we came together and did not just agree to disagree. We agreed to agree on an outcome. Don't we wish our politicians could do the same? That was exactly the kind of feedback that made Morrison Institute for Public Policy feel like this was something we wanted to carry forward beyond the pilot and take statewide in the future.

Steve Goldstein: And the panelists agreed on two outcomes. What were the best arguments in favor and against the proposition. How detailed was that?

Andrea Whitsett: In terms of the citizens statement, they had their key findings. They were agreed to by a super majority of the citizen panelists. They also presented their best arguments pro and con. It wasn't about taking a vote and trying to persuade people one way or the other. We really asked the citizen participants to put their personal views to the side and think about the claims made by the campaigns and evaluate them based on reliability and importance to their fellow voters.

Steve Goldstein: Joe, did it seem to make sense when it came down to it? Did it seem like the panelists give it out as well, were they able to filter it out?

Joe Garcia: Absolutely. It was an amazing thing to watch. This is what the forefathers and framers of the Constitution really had in mind when they talked about an informed electorate. Everyone took their duty seriously. Their personal viewpoint didn't matter. The charge they took to their duty was really admirable, beautiful thing to see. This is all their words. It wasn't our words, it wasn't filtered, it's the words they have chosen to tell fellow voters, this is what you need to know about this proposition.

Steve Goldstein: I come back perhaps to the personalities of the folks involved. Did it feel like people stood out as sort of leaders of the group? Did they share ideas and eventually emerge to this consensus? Or did some take charge more than others?

Andrea Whitsett: The process is designed make sure everyone has an equal voice and is equally heard. Even the configuration. The seating arrangement is changed every day when they break out into small groups to deliberate rate, they were changing the composition of the small groups. It was exciting so see how people took on a little bit of a leadership role in a very positive way. There was a woman who was responding on one of the panels from the day before. People were starting to get a little bit petty. She said, you know, I want to remind everybody that it shouldn't matter. We are here to get to the bottom of the measure, and it's not about personalities of individuals. It was great to see that kind of self-policing of saying, it wasn't the moderators intervening, it was someone on the panel herself, let's get back to the issue at hand and what we're being tasked with.

Steve Goldstein: It was really rare for Arizona, there were not voter pushed initiatives at this point. How exciting could this process be in 2016 if you've got many, many ballot measures to choose from?

Joe Garcia: We're very, very excited about doing a statewide initiative. That's what it was intended for. We were somewhat fortunate it was a smaller model so we could work out any bugs. The program was that solid, that tight, there were very few bugs to work out. But we're excited about the upcoming next two years to look at ballot measures and for Arizona voters to vote in the most intelligent way. There will be some doozies on the ballot two years from now.

Steve Goldstein: We already discussed a little bit of tweaking. When you have so many measures to choose from, how might your criteria change?

Andrea Whitsett: The one thing I would add to what Joe commented. It's really building upon the place we added to this program to bring in neutral experts. Some of the feedback I received was once the citizen panel drafts their statement, to have an opportunity not for advocates but for neutral experts to give a little bit of feedback, to add that layer of vetting to the process. We should consider that as we take it statewide in the future.

Steve Goldstein: Andrea and Joe, thanks for coming.

Joe Garcia: Thank you.

Andrea Whitsett: Thank you.

Andrea Whitsett:CIR Project Manager, Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University; Joe Garcia:Communications Director, Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University;

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