|The Initiative Process: A Better Way
July 21, 2008
By Dan Meek and Harry Lonsdale
It's initiative season again. The time when young people with clipboards approach us on the streets or at bus stops, or in front of post offices, to get our signatures on petitions for the ballot measures we may vote on in November.
From one point of view, the initiative process is a drag. Signature gatherers pester us, take our time, and can be gruff at times. As sometime signature gatherers ourselves, we can speak to the opposite side of that coin. Gathering signatures in the rain or heat, or knocking on the doors of sometimes hostile people, or fending off their menacing dogs, can be daunting. And the best public places to gather signatures (parking lots of large stores) are now off limits to petition circulators.
On the other hand, the initiative is a beautiful thing. It allows We the People to make laws, even amend our state constitution, and fix things that our Legislature is afraid or unwilling to fix. Oregonians have used the initiative more than the people of any other state, and we've used it for good causes: Women got the right to vote in Oregon via the initiative eight years before the U.S. Constitution was similarly amended. The 8-hour work day, the 40-hour work week and the nation's highest minimum wage were enacted by initiative.
Our death-with-dignity law and the scenic waterway system both became law by initiative. Many other valuable laws, such as the nation's first "bottle bill," were passed by the Legislature because supporters were ready and able to put the measure of the ballot, if the Legislature failed to act.
But gathering signatures to get initiatives on the ballot has become much more difficult since 2000. The Oregon Supreme Court eight years ago reversed course and removed the right of petitioners to collect signatures in the common areas of shopping centers or in parking lots of other stores. The Secretary of State and Oregon Legislature have imposed onerous regulations that are so difficult for ordinary people to follow (or even comprehend) that there will be zero measures on the 2008 ballot put there by volunteer circulators.
Citizens just cannot put measures on the statewide ballot any more. Too much cost and hassle. Signature gathering has been taken over by small businesses that pay people to do the dirty work. And the cost of gathering signatures using paid employees is so great — now $300,000 and up for each statewide initiative — that only the well-heeled or corporations or labor unions can afford it.
But there's a better way: The Initiative Primary. Every May in the even-numbered years, we have a primary election and receive a detailed Voters Pamphlet from the Secretary of State. Under the Initiative Primary, any individual or group could gather a significant number of signatures (perhaps 10,000 or 5,000 from volunteers only) to qualify the measure for inclusion in the May Voters Pamphlet, along with pro and con arguments about the measure. The voters would then vote, as part of their vote-by-mail ballot, for those measures that they would like to see on the November ballot. Those measures that receive a majority of yes votes would be included on the November ballot for voters to enact or reject. Simple. Painless. No fraud. No huge expense. No need to separately validate the voter signatures, which are already checked as part of the vote-by-mail process.
Who could object to this? Those who would rather that average voters have no say in a government dominated by lobbyists and other contributors of massive campaign cash.
Dan Meek is an attorney who lives in Portland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Harry Lonsdale is a retired scientist and former candidate for the U.S. Senate who lives in Sisters. He can be reached at (541) 549-1556.