Keeping voters informed.
A year ago, the Oregon Legislature wisely chose to institutionalize a promising pilot project that convenes panels of citizens to weigh the merits and deficiencies of ballot measures and report back to voters. This week, the project has hit a speed bump - one that shouldn't affect its long-term success, but which reflects poorly on the sponsors of a union-backed ballot measure to repeal "kicker" tax rebates for corporations.
The concept behind the citizen review process is simple: A representative panel of two dozen people from across the state spends a full week studying and discussing an initiative, and then it publishes its findings in the Voters' Pamphlet. Those findings include statements both for and against initiatives, as well as the panel's recommendation on how Oregonians should vote.
The review process is the first of its kind in the nation - a laudable exercise in transparency and nonpartisan voter education. At a time when the state's budget is beset on all sides, it costs taxpayers exactly nothing, with all of the program's funding coming from nongovernmental sources (corporations and unions are barred from contributing).
As a pilot project in 2010, citizen panels considered two measures: Measure 73, which called for increased minimum sentences for certain repeated crimes, and Measure 74, which called for an expanded medical marijuana system. The panel recommended that voters reject the first and pass the second. Voters did just the opposite.
Those results have led some to question the value of the citizen review process. They shouldn't. The idea was never that the panels should direct Oregonians how to vote, or that they should pick winning measures. It was to undertake a thorough and unbiased analysis, accurately present the pros and cons to the voters and make an informed, thoughtful recommendation that the voters are free to accept or reject.
After the election, the panels themselves were reviewed by researchers from the University of Washington. The results were encouraging. Researchers said the panels did their homework completely and dispassionately. Voters who were interviewed said the panels' published findings had influenced how they voted, even if they ended up not agreeing with the final recommendations.
Now, as the Citizen Initiative Review Commission prepares for the November election, Our Oregon, the group behind an effort to eliminate kicker rebates for corporations, says it will not participate in the review process.
Our Oregon's decision is disappointing, especially since a principal member of the coalition is the Oregon Education Association - a group one would think would be strongly in favor of a project aimed at producing a better informed and, yes, educated electorate.
Even more disappointing was Our Oregon's explanation for why it wouldn't participate. Citing the outcome of the 2010 election, spokesman Scott Moore said the group decided that the panels don't have any impact on voter behavior and are a waste of time. Or, as Moore put it, the review process "doesn't appear to change anybody's mind" and is not "an effective way of communicating with voters."
That doesn't square with researchers' findings. It's also a puzzling and unfortunate trashing of a fledgling effort that deserves encouragement and support, not ham-fisted, uninformed criticism from a group that should both accept and encourage citizen review.
The commission still intends to review the kicker measure and will do its best to inform voters who will, as voters invariably do, ultimately make their own decisions on how to vote.
Our Oregon has chosen not to participate, but that won't prevent the citizen panels from making sure that voters are equipped to make informed decisions.