In addition to music, I’ve been dedicated for many years to developing educational strategies that help youth and adults think critically about controversial issues. I started this as a social studies teacher, then went on to being a teacher educator at Stanford and an educational researcher at SRI International.
This page presents a method I developed for helping people make more confident voting decisions on ballot measures and propositions. This is especially needed in my state California, where voters are called on to vote on many of these during elections.
Voting on these measures and propositions can be difficult. They address complex policy issues that few people have mastered, yet voters are asked to take leaps of faith and decide on them anyway. The only help provided in the official Voter Guides are lists of endorsements, plus pro and con arguments that may have the effect of further confusing them, being as they are often written more to manipulate than to inform. Research on voting suggests that many people choose to not vote because they are afraid of making the “wrong” choices. That’s too bad, because everybody should vote.
We need to start recognizing that voting on measures and propositions is a skill – one that can be taught through guided practice. That’s what I present here: a short, simple guided practice process called Active Policy Reflection (APR).
Here are instructions for how to lead an APR session. The “participants” may be students, adult groups, or even your friends or family. For any particular proposition, give yourself at least a half hour to do it, and if you have more time, even better because that allows more time for reading and discussing. If you can’t do an APR session face to face, do it online with Zoom another online meeting app. Or, simply use it at home by yourself or with your friends and family!
Instructions for implementing Active Policy Reflection sessions, as applied to a California ballot proposition that appeared on the November 2020 ballot.
1. Go to a source of summaries and pro con arguments about the propositions. There are two noteworthy ones worth mentioning. First, there is the Voter’s Edge Voting Guide, put out by the California League of Women Voters – https://votersedge.org/ca, Second, there is the Ballotpedia website (https://ballotpedia.org/Sample_Ballot_Lookup).
2. Enter address or zip code to see a list of all the ballot propositions.
3. Click a proposition to go to its page.
4. Navigate the content about the different propositions from the links on the right, including the proposition text, analyses, lists of supporters and opponents, and arguments for and against.
5. Read the proposition and the arguments for and against. Copy those texts into a format that you and the others can read or just simply give them the Ballotpedia link (the example below has the overview and arguments pasted in).
6. Take the time to differentiate the issue that the proposition addresses, the problem that the supporters think the proposition addresses, and the plan of action that the proposition puts forth as the solution to the problem. Then, decide if you want to tell your participants what the issue, problem, and solution is, or have them figure it out as part of the session.
7. Fill in the blanks on the template and get ready to circulate it to your participants, on paper or electronically.
Here is an example of how you could use the APR template for a particular proposition coming up on the November 2020 ballot. The template text is black. The example text is blue.
California Proposition 25, Replace Cash Bail with Risk Assessments Referendum (2020) https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_25,_Replace_Cash_Bail_with_Risk_Assessments_Referendum_(2020)
How does bail work in California?
As of 2019, California utilized a cash bail system to release detained criminal suspects before their trials. Suspects paid a cash bond to be released from jail pending trial with the promise to return to court for trial and hearings. The cash bond was repaid to suspects after their criminal trials were completed, no matter the outcome. The Judicial Council of California, which is the rule-making department of the state’s judicial system, described bail as a tool to “ensure the presence of the defendant before the court.” The state’s countywide superior courts were responsible for setting cash bail amounts for crimes, and judges were permitted to adjust the cash bail amounts upward or downward. Suspects could post bail with their own money or through a commercial bail bond agent, who pays the full bail amount in exchange for a non-refundable premium from suspects. In California, there was no law setting or capping premiums on bail bonds. According to the California Department of Insurance, agents typically charged around 10 percent.
What was SB 10 designed to change about bail in California?
SB 10 was designed to make California the first state to end the use of cash bail for all detained suspects awaiting trials. The legislation would replace the state’s cash bail system with risk assessments to determine whether a detained suspect should be granted pretrial release and under what conditions. The risk assessments would categorize suspects as low risk, medium risk, or high risk. Suspects deemed as having a low risk of failing to appear in court and a low risk to public safety would be released from jail, while those deemed a high risk would remain in jail, with a chance to argue for their release before a judge. Those deemed a medium risk could be released or detained, depending on the local court’s rules. SB 10 would exempt suspects of misdemeanors, with exceptions, from needing a risk assessment to be released.
Argument for: Voter referendums are supposed to be about direct democracy – now wealthy people can simply write big checks. The reality is that California is the biggest bail market and has the highest bail rates in the country.
Argument against: The biggest flaw is the use of computer programs to make important justice decisions. These are the same type of algorithms that Big Data companies use to bombard us with ads every day. While I might appreciate an algorithm recommending books or television shows, I have long been against their use in making determinations over insurance rates, and whether or not someone gets a home loan or credit card. The use of algorithms has been proven to discriminate against the poor, minorities and people who live in certain neighborhoods. Relying on algorithms to make important criminal justice decisions is even more appalling.
Step 1 (Group Activity – 3 minutes). Understand the proposition’s topic, perceived problem, and proposed solution.
a. Topic (i.e., What the proposition is about, in neutral terms):
How to manage suspects awaiting trial for crimes they have been accused of committing
b. Perceived Problem (i.e., What supporters think is the problem):
The cash bail system unfairly discriminates against poor people by keeping more of them locked up simply because they cannot afford the bail
c. Perceived Solution (i.e., What action plan supporters propose as the solution):
Replace cash bail with algorithmically-generated risk assessments for detained suspects awaiting trials
Step 2 (Individual Activity – 5 minutes). Fill out the Proposition Evaluation Survey below by marking in the appropriate cells how much you agree or disagree with each statement in the survey.
Note: This survey is simply a tool to help you reflect deeply about the proposition. For example, filling it out may stimulate you to conclude that the perceived problem driving Measure B..
a. is only somewhat of a problem, and that greater problems will arise if it passes, so you decide to oppose it.
b. is a problem with moral dimensions that you care deeply about, yet though you have doubts about success of the proposed solution, you may want to support it anyway.
Proposition Evaluation Survey
|Totally agree||Agree more than disagree||Not sure||Disagree more than agree||Totally disagree|
|1||The supporters have correctly and accurately identified a problem|
|2||The proposition may solve the problem.|
|3||The proposition may cause more problems.|
|4||The problems that may arise could be worse than the problem(s) that the proposition aims to solve.|
|5||The proposition has economic implications|
|6||The proposition has political implications|
|7||The proposition has cultural implications|
|8||The proposition has environmental implications|
|9||The proposition has implications for me personally|
|10||The proposition has implications for my family or friends|
|11||The proposition has implications for our local community|
|12||The proposition has implications for California|
|13||The proposition has implications for the United States|
|14||The proposition has implications for the world|
Step 3 (Group Activity – 15 minutes). Discussion
3A. Each group member answers this question: Which survey items particularly resonated with you about Measure B? For example:
a. made you more aware of how you feel about it
b. made you think differently about it
c. made you more confident about your position
d. made you less confident about your position
3B. Open discussion: All get the opportunity to make comments and pose questions to each other about their reflections.
APR Overview: A short set of slides that overview Active Policy Reflection
APR Instructions & Example: List of steps for using APR to study Ballot Propositions
APR Template: Use this template for any ballot measure or proposition that you choose to evaluate.