Legislation by Amateurs: The Role of Legal Details and Knowledge in Initiative Deliberation

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Citizens act as legislators in initiative elections but lack legal training. Voters commonly misunderstand the legal effects of initiatives (Gastil, Reedy, & Wells, 2007) and courts frequently strike down initiatives as unconstitutional (Miller 2009). These factors point to flaws in the communication of legal information about ballot initiatives to citizens. “Plain legal language” research (Barnes, 2006; Tiersma, 1999) suggests that citizens’ understanding of legal information increases to the extent that the communication of such information accords with citizens’ own legal communicative practices. Yet we know little about such practices. The goal of this study is to increase our understanding of those practices. Citizens’ deliberations about the legal nature and effects of ballot measures were examined through a qualitative content analysis of transcripts from the 2010 Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review, the Citizens’ Statements produced by that review, and official state explanatory statements describing ballot measures. Deliberations and statements were coded for law-related topics, functions, uses of narrative, and motivations for narration. Citizens’ deliberations and Citizens’ Statements were found to emphasize the policy objectives and unintended or adverse consequences of ballot measures, as well as the application of legal rules to multiple factual scenarios. By contrast, official state explanatory statements describing ballot measures made no mention of policy objectives or unintentional or adverse consequences. Results suggest that citizens’ approach to assessing ballot measures may have both strategic/instrumental and realistic dimensions and that rule-application may play a key role in enabling citizens’ understanding of the legal aspects of ballot measures.

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Legislation by Amateurs: The Role of Legal Details and Knowledge in Initiative Deliberation

  1. 1. LEGISLATION BY AMATEURS: THE ROLE OF LEGAL DETAILS AND KNOWLEDGE IN INITIATIVE DELIBERATION Robert C. Richards, Jr. and John Gastil The Pennsylvania State University Department of Communication Arts & Sciences Presentation at National Communication Association, November, 2013
  2. 2. Overview Previous Research and Motivations for This Study The Oregon Citizens‟ Initiative Review, and Methodology Four Results Conclusion
  3. 3. Key Findings of Previous Research Empirical research shows voters commonly misunderstand the legal effects of ballot measures Courts frequently strike down ballot measures as unconstitutional or inconsistent with other laws Citizens deliberating about ballot measures frequently use narrative to discuss unintended / adverse consequences of measures
  4. 4. Motivations for This Study Determine characteristics of citizens‟ narrative and non-narrative discourse about measures Identify differences between citizens’ deliberative discourse, and official voter guide descriptions of measures
  5. 5. The Oregon Citizens‟ Initiative Review • Public deliberation by a random sample of 24 citizens on a ballot initiative; analysis is published in official voter guide • In 2010 two measures: (1) Mandatory Minimums, and (2) Medical Marijuana Dispensaries
  6. 6. Methodology Content analysis of transcripts of citizens‟ deliberations and written statements, and official voter guide descriptions of measures Original coding scheme Developed from prior study of government lawyers Limitations
  7. 7. Main Results 1. Citizens frequently discussed policy objectives and negative and unanticipated effects of measures. 2. Citizens frequently engaged in application of law to facts, explanation of laws, evaluation of laws, and persuasion. 3. Citizens frequently used narrative. 4. Official voter guide descriptions of measures generally lacked these topics, functions, and mode.
  8. 8. 1. Citizens Frequently Discuss Objectives and Adverse Consequences of Measures Policy Objectives: • “It is what that‟s about. It‟s about the patients who need their medical marijuana and cannot get it” • “This is about people that truly need it. If you don‟t understand that point, the rest of it‟s moot” Adverse / Unintended Consequences: • “Well, we‟re saying the Measure is defective … in that it has an unintended consequence of … exposing 15 to 17 year olds to potential 25 year sentences”
  9. 9. Frequency of Statements on Policy Objectives or Adverse Consequences During CIR Deliberation Mandatory Minimums Topical Concepts Medical Marijuana Number of Instances Percentage of All Instances Number of Instances Percentage of All Instances Unintended or Adverse Consequences of Laws 229 7% 410 5% Policy Objectives or Purposes of Laws 213 6% 367 4% Note. Mandatory Minimums: n=3447. Medical Marijuana: n=8377. Instances are thought units
  10. 10. 2. Common Functions of Citizens‟ Legal Talk Evaluating Laws: • “…it is ambiguous and there is a lack of concrete steps in the measure. There is too much left open to interpretation and actions after it passes.” Applying Laws to Facts: • Panelist 1: “You say that you get drunk or something, somebody got hurt and say, „Well, it was my first time.‟ I‟m not going to put him in 25 years in jail because it was the first time. ...” • Panelist 2: “But looking at the other side what about the families? Somebody got killed. It‟s a 15 year old girl who got run over you know”
  11. 11. Frequency of Legal Communication Functions During CIR Deliberation Mandatory Minimums Medical Marijuana Functional Concepts Number of Instances Percentage of All Instances Number of Instances Percentage of All Instances Evaluating Laws 625 18% 684 8% Applying Laws to Facts 587 17% 1161 14% Explaining Laws 235 7% 1419 17% Persuading Others 218 6% 643 8% Note. Mandatory Minimums: n=3447. Medical Marijuana: n=8377. Instances are thought units
  12. 12. 3. Citizens Use Narrative Frequently to Discuss Legal Aspects of Ballot Measures “…so I don‟t see any reason why a person couldn‟t go in one day and buy some [medical marijuana], go in the next day and buy some to sell to his friends and I have seen no evidence anywhere that any state has tried to prevent that from happening”
  13. 13. Frequency of Narrative During CIR Deliberation Mandatory Minimums Types of Narrative Thought Units Medical Marijuana Number of Instances Percentage of All Instances Number of Instances Percentage of All Instances All Types of Thought Units 454 13% 1031 12% Counterfactual Thought Units 260 8% 827 10% Co-Created Thought Units 61 2% 152 2% Responsive Thought Units 23 1% 75 1% Note. Mandatory Minimums: n=3447. Medical Marijuana: n=8377. Instances are thought units
  14. 14. 4. Discrepancies Between Official Voter Guide Descriptions of Measures, and Citizens‟ Deliberations and Written Statements Official voter guide descriptions of measures: • did not discuss policy objectives or negative or unanticipated consequences • did not evaluate laws, • rarely applied laws to facts • did not use narrative (present in citizens‟ oral deliberations but not citizens‟ written statements)
  15. 15. Comparison of Selected Topical and Functional Concepts During CIR Deliberation, Mandatory Minimums (Measure 73) Citizens’ Statement Topical or Functional Concept Number of Instances Voter Guide Percentage Number of of All Instances Instances Percentage of All Instances Objectives or Purposes 6 19% 0 0% Negative or Unanticipated Consequences 3 10% 0 0% Evaluating Law 5 16% 0 0% Applying Law to Facts 3 10% 1 7% Note. Citizens‟ Statement: n=31. Official Voter Guide Explanatory Statement: n=14. Instances are thought units.
  16. 16. Comparison of Selected Topical and Functional Concepts During CIR Deliberation, Medical Marijuana Dispensaries (Measure 74) Citizens’ Statement Topical or Functional Concept Number of Instances Voter Guide Percentage Number of of All Instances Instances Percentage of All Instances Objectives or Purposes 4 12% 0 0% Negative or Unanticipated Consequences 2 6% 0 0% Evaluating Law 5 15% 0 0% Applying Law to Facts 2 6% 0 0% Note. Citizens‟ Statement: n=33. Official Voter Guide Explanatory Statement: n=33. Instances are thought units.
  17. 17. Conclusion • Citizen-lawmakers strategically and realistically analyze measures • Voter guides lack information voters need • Test coding scheme and coding • Replicate this study • Examine other states‟ voter guides
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  28. 28. Acknowledgements • Grateful thanks to: • Professor Dr. Katherine R. Knobloch of the Colorado State University Department of Communication Studies • David Brinker of The Pennsylvania State University Department of Communication Arts & Sciences
  29. 29. Contact • Robert C. Richards, Jr., JD, MSLIS, MA, BA • PhD Candidate • The Pennsylvania State University Department of Communication Arts and Sciences • Email: rcr5122@psu.edu • Web: http://legalinformatics.wordpress.com/about/

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