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Despite misleading statements to the contrary, a fledgling effort to make sure voters are well informed about statewide ballot measures in Oregon is worth continuing.

The Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review process is, in fact, already having a positive influence on an initiative system that’s become overly corrupted by big money over the past two decades.

Perhaps it is the potential power of this initiative-review process that caused the sponsoring group behind one of this fall's ballot measure to refuse to sit down with citizens to discuss that particular measure. After all, if the citizen panel gains too much influence over voters, its unbiased analysis could counteract the emotional arguments that often form the basis for ballot measure campaigns.

Panel unfairly criticized

The Citizens’ Initiative Review started as a pilot project to test whether Oregon could improve its initiative system through a more thoughtful (and less partisan) study of the issues before voters. Last year, the Oregon Legislature wisely made it an official part of the election process.

During the citizens’ review, a panel of randomly selected and demographically balanced voters is brought together to study a measure that will appear on the Oregon ballot. This year, two citizen panels were convened — one to evaluate Measure 85, which dedicates the corporate kicker to K-12 education, and another to study a pair of measures that would legalize nontribal casinos in Oregon. The recommendations of the citizen panel will appear in the Oregon Voters Pamphlet for the November election.

The initiative review panel met with unexpected controversy when the original sponsor of Measure 85 — the Our Oregon group, which is backed by public employee unions — decided not to participate. Scott Moore, a spokesman for Our Oregon, issued a statement claiming that the initiative review process was a waste of his group’s time because it did not seem to influence voters’ decisions.

Moore went on to make demeaning comments about the work of the Citizens’ Initiative Review, saying its track record was abysmal because voters in 2010 had done the opposite of what the panels had recommended.

Despite Our Oregon’s lack of cooperation this year, other supporters of Measure 85 stepped forward to make arguments on behalf of dedicating proceeds from the corporate kicker to schools. By a 19-5 vote, the citizens’ panel came down in favor of Measure 85, despite being insulted by its sponsor.

Influence will grow with time

Our Oregon’s stance in this matter was not only disappointing, but also misinformed. Research by the National Science Foundation shows that a large chunk of voters give added credibility to information provided in the voters’ pamphlet by the Citizens’ Initiative Review. This influence will only grow as more voters become aware of the citizens’ review process.

Other states are now studying Oregon’s latest innovation in the initiative system. The Citizens’ Initiative Review is operated by a nonprofit group, Healthy Democracy, and it functions without state funding. We would support finding new methods of funding — perhaps a check-off box on state tax returns — to expand the work of the Citizens’ Initiative Review.

Oregon voters should have the opportunity for this type of balanced analysis of every ballot measure that comes forward. Voters won’t always agree with the recommendations of these panels — that’s not even the point. The purpose is to help voters make the most informed decisions possible.

The only people who could disagree with that goal would be initiative sponsors such as Our Oregon who seem to prefer to sway voters with emotionally charged television commercials, or one-sided arguments of their own in the voters’ pamphlet — even with a citizens' panel agrees with them.

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