WATCH THE NEW INITIATIVES EXPERIMENT AT CONFERENCE CENTER

From The Statesman Journal:

By Peter Wong

An experiment in how Oregon voters look at ballot initiatives will unfold starting Monday — an experiment worth watching, literally, at Salem Conference Center.

Just like a jury in a courtroom, a panel of 24 voters from throughout the state will hear from advocates and opponents of an initiative proposing mandatory minimum sentences for repeat felony sex offenders and drunken drivers. They will hear from experts, weigh pros and cons, draw conclusions — and come up with a statement for the voters pamphlet for the Nov. 2 general election.

On Aug. 16, the process will be repeated with a different panel, and the ballot initiative will be different — one authorizing the state to license dispensaries for sale of medical marijuana.

Proceedings during each week will be open to the public, and archives will be made available online.

The pair of citizens’ initiative reviews will be conducted by Healthy Democracy Oregon, a nonpartisan organization that ran a similar test in 2008.

Back then, a 23-member panel of registered voters looked at Measure 58, which would have restricted public-school instruction to English only after two years. Voters rejected it.

The 2008 review came too late for the panel’s statement to be included in the voters’ pamphlet. But the pending reviews will result in prominent display for the forthcoming voters’ pamphlet.

Lawmakers in 2009 authorized as many as three such reviews.

A grant of $218,000 from the National Science Foundation will pay for an evaluation of the process and how voters make use of the results.

“If the evaluation has the results we think it will — that voters can have access to information and it is a valuable public service — a lot of foundations would be interested in providing limited funding for a couple of cycles,” said Elliot Shuford, one of the codirectors of Healthy Democracy Oregon.

Several thousand voters received invitations, and the initial pool was narrowed to 300. Panels are balanced by gender, age, ethnicity, congressional district, party affiliation, educational attainment and participation in four previous election cycles — to determine “likely voters.”

Members will be compensated at $150 per day, based on the average wage statewide, plus travel, room and board.

“I think we reduced all the barriers for someone to participate,” Shuford said.

Shuford and Tyrone Reitman, who cofounded the organization in 2007, had to scramble because they originally had chosen for review the two ballot initiatives proposing Oregon’s only nontribal casino. One measure qualified — authorizing a casino on the site of the former Multnomah Greyhound Track in Wood Village — but the measure to create an exception to the constitutional ban on casinos was left in doubt.

They said their objective is to help voters find a way to cut through the clutter of arguments for and against ballot initiatives. Explanatory and fiscal-impact statements are prepared by committees, but most of the arguments in the voters’ pamphlet are paid for.

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