Oregon nonprofit creates ballot measure review panel

An Oregon nonprofit has mailed out 10,000 letters to Oregon voters inviting them to participate in a review panel to help inform fellow voters on ballot measures.

"This is a really special opportunity," said Elliot Shuford, a co-director of the nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, Healthy Democracy Oregon. "Rarely do we get the chance to inform every voter about measures."

The Citizens' Initiative Review is a review process for statewide ballot measures by a group of randomly selected Oregon voters. The group's goal is to provide voters with reliable and truthful information. The panelists' findings will be published in the voters' pamphlet, in an effort to help Oregon voters cut through campaign clutter and boil measures down to their key points.

"The voters' pamphlet is probably the single most important source of information voters go to," said Don Hamilton, chief of communications for the Oregon Secretary of State. According to Hamilton, the majority of voters consult the voters' pamphlet before casting their votes. "Clearly, it's a very important factor."

The 10,000 letters that went out today will ask selected voters to fill out and return a short survey in order to qualify as potential panelists. The letters were mailed in a random sampling of voters, with the number sent to each county based on the number of registered voters. Some voters in Jackson County will be among the recipients of the letters, but participants won't be announced until after the reviews are completed.

According to Shuford, the organization expects to receive between 400 and 500 surveys back from across the state, based on information previously collected from field tests.

Finalists will be selected at an event held July 1 in Salem, and will be chosen based on creating a balanced panel. Each individual selected as a final panelist will receive a stipend of $150 a day for his or her participation in the project.

"Many people are surprised at how fair and thoughtful a group of randomly chosen voters can be," said Shuford of previous field tests that have been occurring since 2008 leading up to the pilot review panel. "We've always had good panelists."

In August, two groups of 24 panelists will participate in hearings where advocates and policy experts present cases for two separate ballot measures. After five days of discussion and deliberation, panelists will construct a statement for the pamphlet.

The statement will also provide information on the number of panelists who support or oppose the evaluated measures.

According to Hamilton, the current voters' pamphlet, while providing information, is not necessarily unbiased in its nature.

Mike Beard, outreach and research director with the group said the hope is the panel's statement will be helpful.

"We really hope this project will give voters a clearer overview of the measures," said Beard. "Though we need to see how this pilot works first."

The review panel project will cost about $150,000, and is funded by private donations, however the nonprofit may petition for state funding in the future if the project is successful.

Voters can learn more about the project at www.healthy democracyoregon.org.

Megan Kehoe is a reporter for the The Bulletin in Bend.

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