Marijuana Legalization: Gateway Vote to More Informed Democracy?

headshotThis post continues our occasional series on Massachusetts Citizens Initiative Review. CIR allows a microcosm of the broader public to dive deeply into a ballot question and fully explore the issue before creating a summary of information for their fellow voters. The account below is based on Babović’s experience working on CIR as an Ash Center Summer Fellow in July and August 2016, as well as her first-hand observations of the multi-day panel event in August. Participants committed to four days of a unique deliberative process in which they heard hard evidence from multiple experts on both sides of the debate on the legalization of recreational marijuana, which is up for referendum vote on November 7.


By Ana Babović

One of the popular topics of discussion among academics and practitioners interested in democratic governance today would definitely be civic engagement with government. Usually in these conversations, the most trending engagement initiatives are labeled as innovations.

How would the Ancient Greeks react to these discussions? Surely they would balk at labeling the most basic and direct forms of democratic participation novel or innovative. And yet the times have certainly changed, and today’s spectrum of political participation does look quite different.

Representative democracy has taken over. The average citizen appears to have become disengaged.

Is direct democracy dead? Might some of these innovations in civic engagement breathe life back into direct democracy? Is there a need or demand from citizens for these types of innovations?

The Citizens Initiative Review might represent one of the innovations that we are looking for.

Developed by Healthy Democracy, Citizens Initiative Review—often referred to as CIR—aims to help citizens better understand complicated ballot questions by directly engaging a group of citizens in an intensive deliberation. Massachusetts State Representative Jonathan Hecht helped bring Citizens Initiative Review to the Commonwealth, with the idea of running a pilot test and gauging its value to voters in November 2016.

On August 25th, 2016, a panel of 20 citizens gathered in Watertown, a town just outside of Boston within Rep. Hecht’s district. They gathered to participate in four days of a unique deliberative process on the legalization of recreational marijuana, which is one of four questions up for referendum vote in Massachusetts on November 7. The selection of the ballot question fell upon the CIR Advisory Board, which includes Democrats and Republicans, practitioners and academics. The nine-member board unanimously chose Question #4 on marijuana legalization.

Over the four days, participants heard hard evidence from multiple experts on both sides of the debate. Their objective was to create a public document with unbiased, neutral, and well-informed information on the pro’s and con’s of voting YES or NO. The document, in turn, is supposed to help fellow voters make a more informed decision on the November ballot.

Massachusetts’ CIR is not the first or only initiative of its kind in the U.S. or abroad. However, there are a few characteristics in Massachusetts—namely its composition, design, and final deliverable—that makes it different from other CIRs.



Panel composition
Initiatives of this kind—public deliberation among peers—often attract citizens who are already most interested or active on the topic. Although this self-selection can ensure greater understanding of the topic, it does not reach the less engaged from among the general population.

What distinguished CIR in Massachusetts was that participants in the panel were selected from a pool of 10,000 randomly selected Massachusetts voters. This method ensured that the panel was representative of the overall electorate in terms of geography, age, gender, race and ethnicity, educational attainment, and party affiliation. See more on the panelist breakdown and selection method here.

Another positive effect of the random selection was improved equality of access to the opportunity of influence and quality of deliberation. All panelists were brought to the table through the same recruitment process, shared the same purpose, and were allotted the same amounts of time, power and influence. As a result, the panelists behaved as equals.

The result was more diverse and balanced participation of all voices. Both the small group sessions and plenary sessions showed that participants were engaged in the deliberation. Even those who could be described as reserved were called on by facilitators and drawn into the discussion. Panelists exhibited a sincere interest in learning about the topic and in producing a helpful deliverable for fellow citizens.

Public deliberation events often resemble a game of Ping Pong. A facilitator asks a question, and then one participant responds. The ball goes back to the facilitator, so to speak, who then asks a question to another participant, who then answers, and so on. On the CIR panel, especially when in their small groups, the deliberation more closely resembled a football game. Once the facilitator posed a question, participants responded in a way that tended to move the discussion forward by building on each others comments, observations and conclusions.


Process design
The deliberations in CIR were tightly structured. They moved from full plenary to small group work, all of which was closely moderated by professional facilitators. Although infusing too much structure into a discussion can hinder creativity and deeper thought among participants, at CIR it appeared to help focus the conversations.

For example, panelists heard presentations from pro and con advocates. More important, however, were three Q&A sessions in which panelists were given the opportunity to pose questions to the advocates as well as independent experts.

Further, panelists were presented with a set of questions carefully selected based on evidence that citizens had an interest in answering them. Questions included:

  • What does this measure do?
  • What problem does it seek to solve?
  • How well would this measure achieve its stated goal?
  • What drawbacks are there?
  • What additional or other benefits besides the main goal might occur if the measure is adopted?
  • What core values are at stake? Are there other ways to address this problem or achieve the desired outcome?

This set of questions was posed to advocates and experts. This way of structuring the discussion toward these questions ensured that the guest presentations focused on information that was relevant to voters’ interests. The questions also helped to improve both the panelists’ understanding of the issue and the quality of their deliberation.

When the panelists had an opportunity to pose a second round of questions of the advocates and experts, questions that they themselves were most interested in asking, the guided first round provided a model for good questions. The second round of questions were of very good quality.

Similarly, an intentional and thorough structure was applied to all other parts of the deliberation.


Final product
Unlike many other deliberative processes, CIR did not aim at providing citizens with a recommendation of how to vote. Panelists in the Massachusetts CIR did not take a vote at the end of the deliberative process. Rather, the deliberations were organized with the aim of developing and sharing unbiased and factual information on a ballot question. The goal was to produce a list of findings of facts and a list of Pro and Contra arguments.

The Citizens Statement is fully neutral. Instead of giving recommendations, it provides citizens with information on the ballot question that might help them to make an informed decision–without trying to nudge voters in either direction.

In consideration of the neutral nature of the process and final product, panelists’ individual preferences on the vote were never asked for or analyzed, either pre- or post-deliberation. Panelists were required in the beginning to commit that they are capable acting and deliberating neutrally, no matter their personal opinion on the issue. Furthermore, any kind of arguments in which a panelist might try to convince another of their own opinion, or try to convince others to change their opinion, was strictly prohibited.

In the last phase of the process, to support this nature of the deliberation, panelists were split into two groups:  one was in charge of coming up with a list of ‘for’ arguments, while the other group was in charge of coming up with a list of ‘against’ arguments. The final language was thus drafted independently, without knowing or seeking agreement on what arguments each side would use, although they could eventually provide the other with feedback.statement-screenshot3

Read the full Citizens Statement here.


What’s next

Though the CIR process looked very strong in terms of the quality of deliberation and the quality of the final Citizens Statement, we must wait for the results of a formal evaluation to see if this kind of citizens engagement proves its usefulness. In charge of CIR’s formal evaluation will be John Gastil, Professor of Communications at Penn State and one of the nation’s leading CIR researchers. The evaluation will be geared toward answering two main questions: 1) Did the citizen panel engage in high-quality deliberation? 2) Did the citizens’ statement help voters better understand the ballot question?

In answering this second question above, the value of the information in the Citizens Statement will surely depend on the extent of its use by the general voting public. To prove the usefulness of the Citizens Statement would require taking a look at how many voters used it, in what ways, how it affected (or not) their views, and how it affected (or not) their turnout on election day. Although the Statement’s usefulness could be partially assessed through focus groups, in order to make CIR and similar innovations widely used and relevant to voters, a number of two-way outreach strategies need to be implemented.

One of the outreach strategies used during the CIR pilot in Massachusetts, for example, was related to the communication with state legislators aimed at informing them about the project and getting their support with the dissemination of the Citizens Statement. Organizing citizens and engaging them in using and promoting this kind of information would definitely increase its usefulness and outreach, but even more importantly it could increase voter turnout and reaction to the Ballot question. Consequently, greater outreach could increase engagement and contribute to the revival of direct democracy.


Ana Babović is a Research Fellow with the Ash Center and Head Teaching Fellow to Marshall Ganz, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to completing the HKS MPA-Mid Career program in 2016, Ana was Executive Director of Serbia on the Move, a national organizing and change-making nonprofit.



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