By Michael P. Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 18, 2016....In an era of expensive initiative petition fights, Watertown Rep. Jonathan Hecht this year will lead a new way for voters to scrutinize a ballot question and then inform their fellow voters of their findings.
Hecht this session proposed legislation (H 561) calling for a system under which citizens would sit in judgment of a proposed ballot question. The idea, Hecht said, was to give people a chance to cut through the spin, glitzy ads and confusion associated with initiative petition fights.
Hecht told his colleagues in January that he was close to having a pilot project lined up but in March the Election Laws Committee shot down his idea, sending it to study. He's moving ahead with it anyway.
In the coming weeks, a Massachusetts Citizens' Initiative Review Advisory Board featuring Democrats and Republicans will notify the campaigns pressing forward with November ballot questions that one of their proposals will be chosen for a vetting process unlike any that's occurred in Massachusetts.
The proposals currently trending toward the ballot involve charter school expansion, legalization of adult use of marijuana, repeal of the Common Core education standards, an effort to regulate health care pricing, a proposal dealing with the treatment of farm animals, and an effort to allow an additional casino. Campaigns are still gathering signatures and lawmakers could act on alternatives to the petitions.
Hecht and the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University are partnering with Healthy Democracy, which implemented Oregon's citizens' initiative review system in 2010, on a privately funded examination of a Bay State ballot question.
"We're going to try it out and see how it works in Massachusetts," Hecht told the News Service. "It's something that just sort of struck me as potentially a really exciting experiment in political participation at a time when there's a lot of skepticism about the political process which I think is a concern to all of us who are part of politics. There's no question that over the last 25 or 30 years we've seen more and more major policy matters go to the ballot."
Project organizers plan in June to assemble 20 Massachusetts voters, a group that will be balanced to reflect the demographics of the state's electorate. In July, the advisory board will select the ballot question that will be the focus of the review. From Aug. 25 through Aug. 28, at the Atrium School in Watertown, the citizens panel, led by professional moderators, will conduct a public appraisal of the ballot question, hearing from supporters, opponents and policy experts. The panel will then put together a statement of findings and disseminate it in September and October, using traditional and social media and in the process potentially influencing voter opinions on the chosen ballot question.
"It's a bit like debate camp for the citizens who are participating," said Hecht aide Sam Feigenbaum, who wrote his senior thesis at Carleton College in 2014 on direct democracy systems. "It's their job to look at the question from both sides and come up with the best reasons either for or against the ballot question on either side."
Said Hecht: "We're not trying to arrive at the end of the deliberations necessarily with a clear recommendation to voters about how they should vote. It's really designed to inform them in ways that come from people like them and is expressed in language that is like normal people use, instead of just being bombarded with sort of one side of the story and then the other side of the story by advocacy groups. The goal is to give people confidence that when they go in and vote they have a real understanding of the issue and kind of understand it from a layperson's point of view."
Hecht said project organizers will send a mailer to 10,000 randomly selected voters inviting them to participate in the pilot. Twenty will be selected from those who indicate a willingness to participate.
"It's done in a very sort of scientific way," said Hecht. "You can actually come up with a panel that's representative" of the electorate.
Feigenbaum said that since 1986, there have been 48 statewide ballot questions, following a 65-year period during which there were only 30 questions. He said he is "flooded" with calls from Hecht's constituents who are confused about ballot questions.
According to Hecht, the ability of campaigns to spend unlimited sums of money in their quests for and against new ballot laws has prompted more people and interest groups to take a run at the ballot.
"Now pro and con groups think 'we can pour lots and lots of money into these questions, let's take our chances, take them to the ballot and see if we can persuade people,'" said Hecht, who added that people on all points in the political spectrum agree that one result of more ballot questions is more voter confusion.
The advisory board includes, among others, former Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair Phil Johnston and former Gov. Michael Dukakis as well as House Assistant Minority Leader Rep. Brad Hill and Sen. Vinny deMacedo, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The other advisory board members are: Alan Solomont, dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life and former ambassador to Spain and Andorra; Archon Fung, academic dean, Harvard Kennedy School; Rachael Cobb, professor of government at Suffolk University and a MassVOTE Board member; Patrick Field, managing director, Consensus Building Institute; and George Pillsbury, senior consultant, NonProfit Vote, MassVOTE Board chair.
Students from the Harvard Kennedy School, Suffolk University and Tufts University will assist with staffing for the project, handling policy research and other tasks. An evaluation of the effort will be led by John Gastil, a professor of communications at Penn State who plans to examine the quality of the deliberations and whether the findings improved voter knowledge and understanding of the question.
The project's total cost, including in-kind contributions, is $150,000. The 20 citizens who participate will be paid $400, or $100 a day for each day they deliberate in August.