Getting to Yes (or No): Making Ballot Initiatives More Voter-Friendly and Deliberative


Tuesday, April 21, 2015, 4:10pm


Ash Center Foyer, 124 Mount Auburn Street, Suite 200-North, Cambridge, MA


John Gastil, Professor and Head, Department of Communication Arts and Sciences, Penn State University
Jon Hecht, MA State Representative (D-Watertown)
Tyrone Reitman, Executive Director, Healthy Democracy Oregon
Carmen Sirianni (moderator), Morris Hillquit Professor of Labor and Social Thought, Brandeis University

About the event:

Join academics and practitioners in a panel discussion on the Citizens’ Initiative Review, an innovative approach to direct democracy through ballot initiatives.

More than 70% of the people in the US live in a state or city where direct democracy is available. In 2014, Americans in 42 states voted on altogether 158 ballot measures. Topics featured in these ballots included burning questions such as the minimum wage, criminal justice, guns, immigration and insurance. As an effect of citizens’ participation in these ballots, four states for example raised the minimum wages from the beginning of this year. Europe, on the other hand, awaited for the result of the Scottish independence referendum with fear and excitement in 2014. However, the complexity of current policy issues and investments of large interest organizations in referendum campaigns have raised concerns about the functioning of direct democracy.

In Oregon, the state legislature together with a civil society organization Healthy Democracy Oregon have come up with a new type of ballot process – one that aims to overcome the challenges of voters’ ignorance and the polarization of discourse in referendum campaigns. The Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) combines a deliberative citizens’ assembly to a direct citizens’ initiative and ballot vote. This panel discussion will explore ways to reform direct democracy using the CIR as an example. After presenting the experiences and preliminary research findings of Oregon case, panelists will discuss how direct democratic institutions, referendum campaigns and voter competence could be improved today in the U.S. and abroad.

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About the speakers:
John Gastil is Professor and Head of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State University, where he specializes in political deliberation and group decision making. His main research projects show the range – and intersections – of those interests. His work on the Citizens’ Initiative Review has helped evaluate an exciting new form of public deliberation that should improve initiative elections. The Jury and Democracy Project has investigated, and hopefully helped vindicate, the jury system as a valuable civic educational institution.

Jon Hecht was elected State Representative for Massachusetts’ 29th Middlesex District in November 2008. He serves as Vice Chair of the Elder Affairs Committee and is also a member of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight and the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. He is a member of the Mental Health caucus, MBTA caucus, and Urban Parks caucus. Representative Hecht is the sponsor of House Bill 561, which would establish a citizens’ initiative review commission to review initiative or referendum petitions to be voted on at general elections. He holds an A.B. from Stanford University, an M.A. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

Tyrone Reitman serves as Executive Director of Health Democracy Oregon, and has a background in political reform work, advocating for increased transparency and accountability in government and politics. He has also worked for and volunteered with a number of ballot initiative campaigns, acquiring a firsthand understanding of Oregon’s initiative process. He holds an MPA from the University of Oregon, focused on political reform and decision making in volunteer-based organizations.

Carmen Sirianni is the Morris Hillquit Professor of Labor and Social Thought, and professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Brandeis University. His current work focuses primarily on democratic innovation in the U.S. In 2009, he published Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance, which examines the role that government at local, state, and federal levels can play in fostering robust, collaborative engagement among citizens and civic associations. Sirianni has been a fellow and faculty affiliate at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard and has taught regularly in Harvard’s Social Studies undergraduate honors program. He has also been a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. He was senior advisor to the National Commission on Civic Renewal, the PBS Democracy series, and various other national civic organizations and initiatives, as well as federal agencies. He coordinated the collaborative governance work group within the Obama ’08 urban policy committee.

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