Voters from Ohio's heavily divided 16th District came together during three deliberative Citizen Election Forums to identify priorities, interview the candidates, have constructive conversations around core issues, and develop a Voters Guide based on their findings as a group.
Problems and Purpose
The public discourse surrounding American political elections has become increasingly toxic and divisive. Leading up to the 2012 election season, the ideological divide between American voters was at its widest point in the previous twenty five year.. This atmosphere was both highlighted and amplified in the Congressional election in Ohio’s 16th District, the boundaries of which had undergone significant redrawing prior to the November 2012 election. As a result, two incumbents -- one Democrat and one Republican -- were set to face off on November 6th, 2012 with a seat in the United States House of Representatives on the line. Hostilities and divisions were also directly related to the disconnect between citizens and officials, the erosion of civil society, and the distrust of voters, all of which had been worsening for decades.
The environment surrounding this election became increasingly hostile, and voters found it difficult to navigate through negative advertisements and political rhetoric. Reclaim November Ohio! sought to inform and engage Ohioans through an initiative with three distinct phases:
- Convene and inform a representative group of people who will help identify the issues that are most important to them.
- Assess the candidates’ positions on those issues, as well as how well the candidates addressed the issues during their campaigns.
- Make an informed recommendation to fellow voters.
These phases were outlined around the large scale goals of effectively involving citizens in the democratic process, improving trust in elected officials, and engaging constituents in conversations with the candidates around issues most relevant to the district. More concretely, the Executive Director of the Jefferson Center, Kyle Bozentko, made the distinction between process and project outcomes that were outlined before RNO was launched. According to Bozentko, the project outcome was to create a product (the Voters Guide) that constituents of the 16th District would pay attention to and “to demonstrate that voters could shape the narrative of a US Congressional campaign.” The process outcome was to develop a numerical system to rate both candidates on questions related to issues they had identified to be most important.
Background History and Context
The history of Ohio and its 16th Congressional District is of crucial importance to why Reclaim November Ohio! was done.
Ohio as a Battleground
The state of Ohio is one of the most important states in the country with regards to Presidential elections. Ohio is important in primaries because it has a large amount of delegates, is demographically similar to the rest of the country, and provides increased visibility for the winner. In addition, the candidate who wins Ohio in the general election has won the presidency every year but one since 1944 (Nixon in 1960). As such, candidates from both parties spend an enormous amount of time and money in Ohio, bombarding voters with information, much of it negative or misleading.
The 6th Congressional District
The 16th District of Ohio was chosen for a few reasons. First, Ohio was one of the hardest hit states during the Great Recession which heightened the importance of every election. Second, the district is similar to the country as a whole with a good mix of urban and rural areas. Last, this election was unique in that it pitted two incumbents against each other which is extremely rare . Because Ohio lost a Representative in Congress due to a declining population, this required some district boundary finagling. As a result, The Ohio legislature decided to merge two districts with two incumbents (one Democrat and one Republican), forcing a very unique election . Redistricting in this fashion forced one political party to gain an advantage at the expense of the other.
Two incumbents running against each other, and this is one of the only times that two incumbent Congressional Representatives have run against each other. Betty Sutton, a Democrat from the 13th District had served several terms in Congress. However, since her address fell within the new 16th District, she had to run there. Jim Renacci, a Republican from the original 16th District, was a first term incumbent. Because the incumbency advantage increases exponentially with each reelection, a victory in this election cycle would provide a large advantage to the victor. The race was centered around economic issues, specifically job creation and the deficit, based on the polls run by Jefferson Action. Both candidates had widely different views on these and many other issues, making the Voters Guide incredibly important. The campaigns involved in this specific race -- which was called “one of the nation’s nastiest and most expensive congressional races” -- contributed to voters’ overwhelming feelings that their voices were being increasingly drowned out by political rhetoric. Voters in Ohio were being bombarded daily with negative campaign advertisements for candidates running for all levels of office. As of mid-October, the Cleveland media market had experienced a barrage of 73,178 political advertisements since the beginning of the year. The sheer volume of television advertisements led Republican candidate Jim Renacci to actually cancel $850,000 in advertisement reservations in the final days before the election citing his belief that the target audience had been overly saturated. Mr. Renacci said that when speaking to voters he most often heard the complaint that the amount of advertisements on the part of both candidates was “overwhelming” and “nauseating.”. The negative tone of both campaigns contributed to citizens' perceptions of a lack of efficacy and a lack of neutral information on which to base their vote.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Leading this initiative was the Jefferson Center, an American non-profit founded in 1974 by Ned Crosby, a political science doctoral student who was working on his dissertation. Crosby wanted to test out his process of citizen engagement called a Citizen Jury. The Jefferson Center has spent the last forty plus years perfecting the Citizen Jury process and using them to educate people on issues ranging from water quality to low income housing. The process has also been used on several campaigns. In 2003, Crosby created a partner organization called Promoting Healthy Democracy, which was renamed as Jefferson Action in 2012 to emphasize a focus on real action to improve democratic processes. Its overall goal is to ensure that politicians and candidates respond to the important issues their constituents have identified through forums.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The participants in Reclaim November Ohio were selected from a stratified random sample to create a demographically accurate microcosm of the region’s population. The 23 citizens chosen were paid a stipend to limit the barrier to participation. The participants were diverse, ranging from students to retirees, blue to white collar workers, with varying levels of past political participation. Some did not follow politics at all, while some were very involved, volunteering on campaigns and attending rallies. The common theme that bound all of the participants was their frustration with the typical mudslinging of campaigns and a desire to be involved in a process centered on issues.
Methods and Tools Used
The three Citizen Election Forums were deliberative events that drew on the Jefferson Center's experience with the Citizens' Jury methodology. In a democratic system where the manipulation of voters by campaigns runs rampant, decisions are not often based on the positions of the public. Even still, policymakers justify their actions as “the will of the people.” A Citizen Jury helps to remedy this problem. By bringing together a randomly selected and demographically balanced panel of citizens to discuss a salient issue, the participants can show decision makers what citizens really think. Through expert testimony and deliberation, members of the jury produce recommendations for politicians and the public.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Over the course of the three Citizens Elections Forums (CEFs) that took place, there was a considerable amount of deliberation among all of the participants that attended. The first CEF focused on gaining the background information that was needed to discuss pressing political topics like economic growth, and concluded with the participants deciding on three issues that would be the main focus for future sessions: weak economic growth, unemployment, and the federal debt and deficit. The second CEF allowed the participants to dive into each of these three issues in more depth with the help of experts who provided information and moderators who helped facilitate discussions. The sessions in the second CEF focused on creating good questions to ask the candidates later. During the final CEF, participants got to propose their questions to the candidates, and subsequently created a Voters Guide.
The first CEF took place in July 2012, and started off with the participants hearing from two experts on the economy and economic growth, and from a third expert who presented information from public opinion surveys conducted before the CEF convened. After the presentations, the participants took their first vote on economic priorities. Once the vote was completed, the group reviewed and discussed the results with the help of professional facilitators. By the end of the day, they had picked the top three issues that were most important to them. The participants eventually decided upon weak economic growth, unemployment, and the federal budget deficit and debt. These three issues would then be the focus of the remaining Citizen Juries. Interestingly, these issues were the same ones deemed to be most important by the public opinion surveys that were conducted before the start of the CEF. 
The second day of the first CEF started with hearing from advocates on certain issues. The topics included the ones deemed most important on day one: unemployment, weak economic growth, and the federal budget deficit and debt. However, other topics were also included like economic inequality, government regulations, living standards for poor Americans, and the cost of health care. Even though these other issues would not be the focus moving forward, they still received votes from the poll conducted on the first day. After this, the participants reviewed all of the information presented to them and created questions. Later on in the day, two experts came back and answered the questions created by the participants. Before the end of the day, the citizens took stock of the data and reasons that influenced their beliefs on the three economic issues that were deemed most important to them. 
The second CEF took place over four days in September of 2012. Because the group of people that convened for the second and third CEFs was different from those who were involved in the first CEF, there were a few preliminary steps that needed to be taken care of before delving into the issues. Participants needed to be informed on the format of the CEF, ground rules needed to be established, and they needed to be briefed on what happened in the first CEF. The day then ended with citizens hearing from experts who taught them appropriate terms and key concepts needed to understand the economy and how to analyze policies. 
The second, third, and fourth days of the CEF all followed a similar agenda. One presenter started the day by teaching basic background concepts and information, and other presenter(s) summarized the range of policy options used for addressing the issue. Once the presenters left, the participants discussed the information. The discussions were more focused on creating and formulating good questions that would be proposed to the Congressional candidates at the last forum, as opposed to trying to create a single solution to the issue. With the help of moderators, the participants were able to engage in a meaningful discussion of the issues without any politics getting in the way. The second day was focused on the economy, the third day on unemployment , and the fourth day on the federal debt and deficit.
The third and final CEF took place in October of 2012. On the first of the two-day forum, the participants heard a presentation by Jefferson Action analyzing the amount of money spent and content of materials put out by each campaign. Then the communications directors from both campaigns met with the participants for 30 minutes each. Once each session was complete the participants prepared their own individual ratings. The day ended with participants preparing questions for the candidates to answer the next day.
On the second and final day of the of the last CEF, the participants got to meet and question each of the Representatives running for office in their district. Each candidate pent 75 minutes with the CEF, and the time was divided equally among each of the three issues that were deemed most important by the first CEF (weak economic growth, unemployment, and federal deficit). The participants asked their prepared questions and additional questions they developed over the course of the session. Ohio-based and national media observed the session, and also had the opportunity to ask questions of the candidates. Once the sessions with each of the candidates were completed, the participants created summaries of each candidate’s positions and put together a comprehensive Voters Guide that was later released online through the Jefferson Action website, other news and media sites, as well as some coverage in local newspapers. 
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
One of the most important outcomes from Reclaim November Ohio! was the creation of the Voters Guide that was put together during the final sessions of the Citizens Election Forums. The Voters Guide consisted of an issue guide, an explanation of criteria used by the participants, a rating for each candidate on the three issues that the panel deemed most important, and a fourth category on campaign conduct.
The issue guide was designed to explain key concepts needed to understand the topics discussed in the CEFs and steps for basic analysis in easy to understand language. The guide explained the reasoning behind how participants recognized when a campaign is informing voters on issues, and how they deemed a candidate to offer real solutions that are likely to succeed. Once these preliminary steps were complete, the Voters Guide offered rankings for each candidate on the three issues they deemed most important (weak economic growth, unemployment, the federal debt and deficit), as well as a fourth category of campaign conduct.
For each individual issue, the Voters Guide offered a summary of each candidate’s position on the issue. Then, the participants ranked each of the candidates on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being weak and 5 being strong. In addition to the rankings, they offered reasons and explanations for why votes were cast for each ranking. Not only were the policies ranked based on quality, but they were also ranked on the likelihood of success. The only exception to this format was the final category of campaign conduct. In this area the participants only did an overall evaluation, with one definitive ranking for each candidate.
Once the Voters Guide was complete, it was picked up by media outlets in the area. On the whole, the media covered both the Voters Guide and the Reclaim November Ohio! project as a whole in a positive light. The Voters Guide ended up having an affect on a certain portion of the population, which will be discussed in more detail in the Analysis and Criticism section.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
According to Kyle Bozentko, Reclaim November Ohio! met all stated process and project outcomes and succeeded at meeting their goals at all levels. Further, there were several important individual level effects that happened as a result. Evaluation research suggests that after the Citizen Election Forums, participants were more likely to pay attention to the news, have more trust in the government, have more confidence in their knowledge of and ability to discuss the issues, and have higher perceptions of political efficacy. Participant also believed that the RNO project would positively influence the Congressional candidates.
In general, the project was successful. Jefferson Action strove and succeeded in keeping bias out of the forums. They managed the logistics and operations well and ensured that people and other stakeholders (like the media) embraced the project as a whole. There was clearly an impact on the voters as well. Exit polls showed 1 in 8 voters accessed the materials. Two thirds of those that did found the materials useful and trustworthy, and 25% said their vote was influenced by the materials. Anecdotally, one presenter (who taught economics at a local university) found the participants more knowledgeable in economics after his session than his students did after one whole term, indicating the passion and willingness to learn of the participants.
Despite these many positives, some criticisms should be noted. It would behoove Jefferson Action to use a different system than numerical ratings the next time they do a similar project, as rating candidates caused participants to revert back to their partisan instincts, which is counterproductive to running a Citizen Jury. They should also look in to trying to keep costs down. At around $600,000, this was an extremely expensive project. It would be prudent to try and get these costs under control.
While on the whole the program was a success, there is some room for improvement. Developing the program to take place over a longer period of time could increase the overall effectiveness and allow more people to access the Guide. Another option would be discussing more topics than only the top three that were deemed most important, as there are often a myriad of issues that people find important. It would also be interesting to try more, smaller groups which would allow for more thoughtful deliberation. A group of 25 can be hard to manage and may lead to some participants being marginalized. Shrinking the group size would allow everyone’s voices to be heard.
Munno and Nabatchi, pg 4-5.
Eaton, Sabrina. "Rep. Jim Renacci Defeats Rep. Betty Sutton in Redrawn Congressional District; David Joyce, Marcy Kaptur Also Win." http://www.cleveland.com/open/index.ssf/2012/11/rep_jim_renacci_defeats_... Ohio Media Group, 7 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
 Weisman, Jonathan. "Sensing Saturation, Ohio House Candidate Cancels Advertising Buy." The Caucus. New York Times, 24 Oct. 2012. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.
 "Reclaim November Ohio! Documentary." Jefferson Action. Jefferson Action, 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.
 Bozentko, Kyle. "Reclaim November Ohio for Participedia." Message to the authors. 1 Mar. 2016. E-mail.
 Munno and Nabatchi, "Public Deliberation and Co-Production." http://www.publicdeliberation.net/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1343&conte.... 6-7
 "The Management and Implementation of Reclaim November Ohio: A Process Evaluation" Nabatchi, Tina, et. al. Jefferson Action. http://jeffersonaction.org/wp-content/uploads/Reclaim-November-Ohio-Proc.... 9-10.
 Citation missing
The Jefferson Center: http://jefferson-center.org/
Jefferson Action: http://jeffersonaction.org/
Reclaim November Ohio Voter Guide (PDF): http://jeffersonaction.org/wp-content/uploads/Combined-Voter-and-Issue-Guide.pdf
News Coverage: http://jeffersonaction.org/category/news-coverage/
Case analysis in the Journal of Public Deliberation (open access): http://www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol10/iss2/art1/
The first submission of this entry was researched and written by Emily Alber Chase, Andre Gobbo & Brian Quinlan and uploaded to Participedia by Andre Gobbo on May 16th, 2016.
Lead image: Kbatio | WKSU News https://goo.gl/jK1RHc