Arizona Citizens' Initiative Review offers key findings on pension ballot issue

Project Dates: 
2014
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Arizona successfully completed its inaugural Citizens’ Initiative Review, an award-winning citizen-participant project to help voters better understand the pros and cons of complex ballot issues.

For this initial CIR, Phoenix’s pension reform proposal (Proposition 487) was thoroughly examined for 3½ days by 20 participants who represented a sample of Phoenix voters based on demographic criteria.

Official key findings and pros & cons can be found in the document at the end of this article or by clicking HERE.

“By the end of the CIR process, citizen participants became well versed in the pros and cons of the initiative, and in turn could offer their understanding of the measure to fellow voters by explaining key findings in everyday language,” said Andrea Whitsett, CIR project manager at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

                                 For news stories relating to CIR, click here

The Arizona State University nonpartisan think tank convened the Arizona CIR exercise Sept. 18-21 at the Phoenix Convention Center. 

The Arizona CIR project was based on a highly touted model developed in Oregon by Healthy Democracy, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that acted as a collaborative partner and adviser for the Arizona exercise.

Arizona’s CIR was tailored by local demographics. For example, a focus on local recruitment emphasized participation by Latino voters and independent voters – two factors not included in the Oregon CIR projects.

Another variation was Morrison Institute using neutral panelists. This was in addition to the usual pro and con panelists who explained components of the pension reform initiative.

“This project, which has been in the works for two years, aligns perfectly with one of our renewed emphases – governance,” said Morrison Institute director Thom Reilly, who served as one of the neutral experts on pension reform. Reilly has written two books on pension reform and is frequently asked to speak on the issue around the nation.

Morrison Institute plans to hold CIR exercises for statewide ballot initiatives in the future. For the first time in more than three decades there were none, so the Phoenix measure was selected since the issue of government pensions has garnered statewide and national interest.

The Oregon CIR project was awarded both the International Association for Public Participation’s Award for North American Project of the Year and Project of the Year internationally in 2013.

“CIR is a proven model for strengthening the democratic process,” Whitsett said. “It engages the citizen panelists in a fair and balanced deliberative process that results in quality information for all voters. The findings of the citizen panel are clear, understandable and rise above partisan rhetoric.”

CIR is somewhat similar to a deliberation process by a jury, who represent a sample of Arizona’s electorate by demographics – including political party, age, gender and ethnicity.

“As Latinos become more of a force in Arizona’s electorate and elected leadership, it was vitally important to include a strong representation of Latino voters in Arizona’s CIR exercise,” said Joseph Garcia, director of the Morrison Institute Latino Public Policy Center.

The full text of the ballot measure, neutral expert presentations, panel discussions with opposing points of view and written materials from advocates were included in the exercise.

Participants deliberated the initiative’s reliability, relevance and real impact – not their personal views about pension reform.

“For me, one of the things that made the whole thing easier was our goal was (defining) what information was good and necessary to educate the public,” said Raymond Wheeler, 47, who owns a window-coverings business.

Annette Sutfin, 31, a social worker, said she entered the CIR exercise as somewhat a skeptic but left as a believer in the process and its potential for educating and empowering the electorate.

“Coming in I kind of joked that I was excited to engage in ‘the democratic process,’ but as we actually did it, that’s exactly what we did in every way possible,” Annette said.  “The way we spoke to each other and the way that the (CIR) process was structured it really felt that we were engaging with the democratic process in a way that I think in an ideal world the democratic process would occur.”

CIR facilitators helped move the process forward but did not influence individual or group discussions or positions.

Neutral background panelists were Reilly; David Berman, Morrison Institute senior research fellow; Spencer Brien, assistant professor, ASU School of Public Affairs; and Phoenix Deputy City Manager Rick Naimark.

Panelists in support of the pension reform initiative were: City Councilman Sal DiCiccio; Christina Corieri, who works in DiCiccio’s office (but participated on her own personal time); and Byron Schlomach, economist, the Goldwater Institute.

Panelists in opposition to the initiative were: Cathleen Gleason, retired director of the city’s budget and research department; and Robert Klausner, a Florida attorney specializing in government pension issues.

The Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a free market policy and lobbying group that put the measure on the ballot and financially supports the campaign to pass it, declined an invitation to participate in the CIR exercise.

“An incredible group of randomly selected voters from across Phoenix reviewed Prop 487, clearly demonstrating the value of this new public service to voters, whether it's on city-wide or state-wide level,” said Tyrone Reitman, executive director at Healthy Democracy. “We hope this project supports the voters of Phoenix during this election, while also charting a new course toward engaging voters in (ballot initiative) elections across Arizona.”

As was done in Oregon, an independent evaluation was conducted for Arizona’s CIR to ensure the integrity and transparency of the exercise, which was open to the public and news media for observation. The evaluation also will be used in improving Arizona’s CIR for the 2016 election, when there likely will be key statewide ballots.

Arizona’s CIR Project was aided by input from its nonpartisan advisory board, including:

  • Thomas Collins, Executive Director, Arizona Clean Elections Commission
  • Rivko Knox, League of Women Voters of Arizona
  • Bill Montgomery, Maricopa County Attorney
  • Alberto Olivas, Maricopa County Community Colleges District Center for Civic Participation
  • Jane Prescott-Smith, Managing Director, National Institute for Civil Discourse
  • Karen Schroeder, ASU Adjunct Professor, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning
  • Daniel Schugurensky, ASU Professor, Schools of Public Affairs and Social Transformation

 

A Morrison Institute poll conducted just before the 2012 election identified a dire need for increased voter awareness concerning ballot measures, noted David Daugherty, associate director at Morrison Institute and a longtime data and survey researcher.

Nearly three-quarters of Arizona voters polled said they found ballot measures too complicated and confusing to fully comprehend. As a result, 60 percent use their limited knowledge to struggle through the propositions, while more than 20 percent don’t vote one way or the other. Some respondents (5.5 percent) said they just vote “no” on ballot propositions they feel they do not have enough information about to understand.

“This project fits perfectly with Morrison Institute’s nonpartisan mission and can be seen as an innovative extension of Morrison’s highly acclaimed efforts to increase voter awareness,” Daugherty said.

“Understanding Arizona’s Propositions,” a nonpartisan and neutral examination of the pros and cons of ballot initiatives, is posted at MorrisonInstitute.asu.edu before elections that include statewide initiatives. The briefings are touted for their concise explanations, as well as their non-biased presentation and neutral position.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource and part of the ASU College of Public Programs, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state and region’s quality of life.