See our full coverage of the 2018 Massachusetts ballot questions.
Across the state, in mailboxes, libraries and lobbies, there are stacks of Massachusetts voter guides. The red booklet from the Secretary of State’s office summarizes Massachusetts’ three ballot questions, with blurbs from the pro and con campaigns.
Next election, there may be something new included in those packets. Lawmakers are considering legislation that would have a group of citizens clarify the particularly confusing questions.
State Rep. Jonathan Hecht said he brought the Citizens' Initiative Review, or CIR, process to Massachusetts because he was growing increasingly concerned about voters' confusion.
“We hear a lot from voters that they find ballot questions very confusing,” he said.
There are no limits on how much money can be spent on campaigns for ballot questions, and moneyed interests sometimes create very confusing ballot questions when they cannot convince the legislature to make new laws.
So, several years ago, Hecht set out to find a way to “make voters feel more engaged, more in control,” he said.
He learned about the CIR process used in some states out West and thought it would work well here.
Twenty voters from across the state gathered recently in a nondescript conference room at the Watertown Free Public Library to test out the CIR process. Massachusetts lawmakers were watching because, if this experiment goes well, they can vote to make it an official part of state elections. This is the second time the state has experimented with the CIR process — the first was in 2016, when voters were asked about decriminalizing marijuana.
This year's group was selected from a pool of 15,000 voters and picked to reflect the state’s general population on an array of characteristics: age, race, gender, geographic locations around the state, educational attainment and party affiliation.
What happens during the review process is like a trial with a jury of voters. What’s on trial is a ballot question.
This year, it’s Ballot Question 1, a law that would set nurse-to-patient ratios in Massachusetts hospitals. But instead of a verdict, the panel writes a citizens’ statement — one-page, in plain English — summarizing the issue without taking a stand.
They started by hearing ‘opening statements’ from both sides.
“Picture your loved ones — your elderly parent, your child — pressing a call button asking for help,” said Karen Coughlin, who’s with a nurses' union and represents the "Yes on 1" campaign. “Today, nurses are forced to care for too many patients at one time, and patients suffer the consequences.”
Next, Terry Hudson-Jinks, a nurse in management, took the microphone. She's with the "No on 1" campaign. “This law is not flexible,” she said. “It does not allow the voice of experience nurses to make decisions based on who the patients are, because they are not all the same, (or) who the nurses are — because they are not all the same.”
The citizens cross-examined each campaign. They heard expert testimony. Then, they started deliberating and arguing over even the smallest things to ensure voters fully understand the ballot question and its implications. They wrangled over the placement of commas and made proposals and counter-proposals about precise wording.
Four long days later, they were done and the statement was released to the public on the Citizens' Initiative Review's website.
This experiment is being privately funded by Hecht’s statehouse office, Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and a nonpartisan, nonprofit called Healthy Democracy. And it’s still being tested. This is the second time it’s been done in Massachusetts. So, as part of the experiment, after the 20 citizens are done, they gather to reflect on the process.
“This was a real challenge,” said one bedraggled man. Just like a jury, the citizens are afforded a degree of anonymity.
"This was exhausting, exhilarating and educational for me,” said one of the woman on the review panel.
“What we came up with was absolutely amazing,” effused another participant.
“It really shows that democracy can work,” said another.
With the statement done, the citizens dispersed across the state, and John Gastil's team of researchers got to work.
Gastil is a professor at Penn State University, whose book "By Popular Demand" helped kick off Citizens Initiative Reviews a decade ago. Since then, he’s studied the results of over a dozen of them nationwide. And so far, he said, the statements earn high marks.
"There haven't been any factual errors yet," he said.
Gastil's team assessed if the Citizens’ Statements are really plain English and exactly how easy they are to read. What he’s found across the country is that these summaries are easier to understand than the ones created by election officials.
As for voters, Gastil’s research shows the citizens’ summaries make voters a whole lot more informed.
"It turns out that reading this statement strongly encourages maybe as many as a third of voters to vote who wouldn't have otherwise, by their own admission,” said Gastil. “In other words, it gives people just enough information to feel like, ‘Yeah, I'm going to vote on this. I feel like I have something to say here.’”
That’s why Massachusetts lawmakers are considering legislation to make the Citizens' Initiative Review an official part of state elections. If they do, that one-page, plain-English statement would be included in the official voter guides that are mailed to all the voters in the state.
Some legislators are calling this the next chapter in American's grand experiment with democracy.
This article has been updated.