The process and mandate of panelists in citizen deliberative councils tend to make randomly selected people act much more responsibly as citizens while on the council. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine notes that randomly selected panelists in Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Review knew they were “expected to base their opinions on hard evidence” and “felt obligated to consider the measure more carefully than they otherwise would have.” This is one reason such panels tend to produce more thoughtful, wise recommendations than we usually find in the general public discourse on public issues – recommendations that, under the right circumstances, can then shift the opinions of voters.
The Mind of a Flip-Flopper
By MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER
Published: August 15, 2012
Our identities, of course, are also stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. In some cases — if we want to think of ourselves as thoughtful and open-minded — we can adopt identities that actually encourage flip-flopping. This is why juries function, and it’s what places pressure on scientists to form opinions based on reliable data. In 2009, the Oregon Legislature mandated the creation of the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review, panels made up of random residents assigned to review and assess ballot initiatives in “citizens’ statements.” The panelists know they’re expected to base their opinions on hard evidence, and this expectation becomes part of their temporary identity.
Under those conditions, says John Gastil, professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State, facts suddenly matter. He points to Measure 73, a widely popular mandatory sentencing initiative, which the citizens’ panel voted against, 21 to 3. The panelists felt obligated to consider the measure more carefully than they otherwise would have, Gastil says, so they noted the high costs and thought about people who might be unfairly punished. Only a minority of voters knew the panel existed, so the measure still passed — though by a smaller margin than expected. In a study he performed on the public response to Measure 73, Gastil found that the panel’s opinion significantly changed the minds of those people who read its findings. “You got a shift from two-thirds in favor to two-thirds against just by reading the report,” Gastil says.