From Eugene Register-Guard:

The initiative process asks a lot of citizens, particularly when voters are bombarded with conflicting claims by well-financed campaigns. In this election cycle, Oregon will have some help: A random sampling of people from around the state will gather for an intensive evaluation of two initiatives on the November ballot, and findings will be summarized in the Voters’ Pamphlet.

It’s called the Citizens’ Initiative Review, the brainchild of a reformer from Eugene named Tyrone Reitman. For four years he and his group, Healthy Democracy Oregon, have been refining the idea of a citizens’ review, obtaining grants for its development and finally, in 2009, winning legislative approval for a test run.

Reitman’s study of the initiative led him to conclude that voters are short-changed at every stage of the process, from the “horsetrading of buzzwords” by the committees that prepare explanatory statements to the self-serving and emotionally charged language of paid statements in the Voters’ Pamphlet. Yet for all its faults, the initiative is prized by voters. Reitman sought a way to provide voters with credible information about proposals appearing on the ballot, without restricting the public’s right to make use of the initiative process.

Here’s how the review works: Healthy Democracy Oregon mailed surveys to 10,000 randomly selected voters around the state, seeking demographic information and asking if they’d be willing to participate in a weeklong evaluation of an initiative proposal. From the 350 people who responded, 24 were chosen to represent a balanced cross-section of the state’s electorate. Members of the review group will receive stipends of $150 a day to go to Salem later this month and evaluate an initiative proposal.

The evaluations will include presentations from sponsors and opponents of the initiative, analysis by experts in relevant fields of public policy, and deliberations by the 24 members of the review group. In a test of the process two years ago, a review group scrutinized Ballot Measure 58, a proposal to limit bilingual education in public schools. Bill Sizemore, the sponsor of the initiative, and Defend Oregon, a group that led the opposition, both said the process was fair.

This year, two initiatives will be subject to review: Measure 73, which would require mandatory minimum sentences for some people convicted of drunken driving or sex crimes, and Measure 74, which would expand Oregon’s medical marijuana law to allow marijuana dispensaries.

The reviews are funded by a $218,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Reitman likens the cost of the reviews to paying for a home inspection: A thorough and neutral review by ordinary citizens could help voters avoid expensive mistakes on Election Day.

No other state has a process like the Citizens’ Initiative Review, but if it’s successful it could be replicated in states where complex, consequential and costly decisions are being made at the ballot box. Oregon, which introduced the initiative, may be on the verge of pioneering a means of improving it.