State needs better initiative information

Special to The OlympianMay 13, 2014 

Sandra Romero This year we will see, once again, a group of initiatives that appear on our ballot with very little public scrutiny or independent assessment. Too often, statewide initiatives have become focused on a series of dueling ads which are fueled by out-of-state interests and provide confusing sets of “facts” for the public to digest.

For example, Initiative 594 and Initiative 591 are contradictory measures on gun registration and background checks. I-594 received 72 percent support to require background checks for those purchasing guns online and at gun shows. The rival measure, I-591, came in with 55 percent support and would bar the state from adopting background checks and measures that were stricter than those under federal law.

Both measures will go before the voters in the November election and if both pass, it will be up to the state Supreme Court to clear up the mess. This is a fresh reminder that we need a solid source of crucial information about statewide initiatives in Washington — one that voters can trust.

Responsible Choices was founded to provide that crucial information. It is a nonprofit civic organization with a mission of providing important information to voters on initiatives in an unbiased, nonpartisan manner.

Responsible Choices is introducing a tool called the Citizens Initiative Review. It’s been tested in Oregon, supported by Democrats and Republicans. CIR was piloted by Healthy Democracy in Oregon in 2008. It has been studied and found effective through grants from the National Science Foundation. The Oregon Legislature agreed to place CIR results in their voters guide.

So what exactly is the CIR? It is a process in which randomly selected voters are matched to state voter demographics and politics and they willingly spend nearly a week together to review the pros and cons of an initiative. These citizens dig deep into the initiative and ask direct questions of both sides of a campaign and outside experts. They then take a vote and write statements for the majority and the minority sides. The statements specify why they made their decisions and these statements appear in the Oregon voters guide.

So how effective are CIRs? According to the National Science Foundation report, the voters not only use the majority and minority statements to inform their own votes, they also review the specifics of why the CIR panelists took their positions.

It’s not only the gun measures that will be on the ballot in November. Voters may have to decide on at least three other measures including classroom size, campaign finance reform and cutting taxes. Even more could be on the way.

Washington state now has the opportunity to pilot the CIR in the 2014 general election because Responsible Choices has received a matching grant from the Omidyar Network through Healthy Democracy Oregon to create Washington’s CIR. The King County Bar Association has endorsed the efforts of Responsible Choices to pilot it when the matching funds are raised. One of the initiatives on the November 2014 ballot will be selected for the review.

Readers who want to learn more or help with this all-volunteer effort can go to responsiblechoiceswa.org.

Sandra Romero is a Thurston County Commissioner and Responsible Choices board member.

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