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Signatures may be harder to gather

New petition law calls for registration, payroll monitoring
by: JIM CLARK, Mayor Tom Potter (right) chatted with chief of staff Austin Raglione in a Jefferson hallway Monday, the first day of City Hall’s weeklong visit to the school.

Initiative petitioners have been scarce on Portland streets this year, and it’s not because of the dreary weather. Most provisions of a 2007 initiative reform took effect Jan. 1, causing at least a two-week hiatus in paid signature gathering. House Bill 2082 requires training and registration of paid petitioners, makes initiative sponsors legally responsible for signature gatherers’ work on the streets, and requires signature-gathering companies to submit detailed payroll and other business records. The law also makes it much tougher to submit multiple versions of the same initiative, known as “ballot-title shopping,” which is done to procure the best poll-tested summary language that appears on the ballot. Reform backers say HB 2082 will restore integrity to a century-old initiative system that has been hijacked by out-of-state groups and tarnished by fraud and abuse. But initiative activists on the right and left say the new law is making it much harder to put citizen-inspired laws before voters, especially more grass-roots efforts that mix volunteer and paid signature gathering. Conservative initiative activists Bill Sizemore, Kevin Mannix and Russ Walker anticipated the law’s effects, and submitted an unprecedented 1.3 million early signatures on 10 initiatives for 2008 before the law took effect this month. But the new law could make it tougher to qualify other proposed initiatives that didn’t get such head starts, such as those calling for open primaries, campaign finance reform, a crackdown on illegal immigration and enabling a Vegas-style casino east of Portland. The law also could make it more costly to gather signatures on Portland ballot measures, such as a potential referendum to challenge a proposed road-maintenance fee. Before Wednesday, not a single paid signature gatherer was registered to collect signatures in Oregon under the new law, said Summer Davis, compliance specialist with the Oregon Elections Division. And Davis said 10 ballot-measure campaigns missed deadlines early this week to submit payroll and other records. They can resume or commence signature gathering. Paperwork adds up Tim Trickey, who runs Democracy Direct in Clackamas, the dominant signature-gathering company used by Sizemore, Mannix and other conservatives, said he had 20 paid signature gatherers ready to pick up their clipboards and resume work. The first dozen were registered Wednesday afternoon, Davis said. Trickey said he planned to submit payroll records for four initiatives by Thursday afternoon, enabling those campaigns to proceed with signature gathering. But Trickey, whose petitioners gathered the 1.3 million signatures for 10 campaigns that submitted signatures in December, said the new law is having its desired effect of crimping conservative initiative campaigns. About a half-dozen of his veteran petitioners refused to go through the registration process, for fear of being harassed, Trickey said. Some would-be initiative sponsors, such as Abner and Carol Bobo, refuse to sponsor more initiatives because of the new legal liability that sponsors must assume, Trickey said. The Bobos have co-sponsored several past initiatives with Sizemore. And the paperwork requirements, which Trickey labeled pure “harassment,” are taking time and energy away from signature gathering. “I had a chief petitioner in my office who had to sign 62 pieces of paper,” Trickey said. “It’s not worth it anymore,” he said, threatening to get out of the business. Trickey’s company also is expected to handle signature gathering to put a Portland road-maintenance fee on the ballot as a referendum. HB 2082 won’t jeopardize that effort but it will make it more costly, said Danelle Romain, a lobbyist working on that business-funded campaign. Bill takes on ‘loosey-goosey’ Mannix, a former lawmaker and past candidate for governor and attorney general, called HB 2082 a “deliberate attempt by political power elites to strangle the initiative process.” Influential unions and corporate groups prefer to operate in the Legislature, where they hold more sway, Mannix said. State Sen. Kate Brown, D-Portland, who shepherded HB 2082 through the Senate last year and now is running for secretary of state, said the law was designed to restore integrity to the initiative system. Among other benefits, she said, the reform will prevent people convicted of fraud or identify theft from becoming paid petitioners. “Clearly there was fraud and abuse,” Brown said. “Oregonians are sick and tired of out-of-state interests taking over our initiative process, and this bill was a response to that.” Ted Blaszak, who runs Democracy Resources, a Portland signature-gathering firm used by labor unions and progressives, said it’s no problem to comply with HB 2082 if a company has been paying signature gatherers by the hour instead of by the signature, as required by the 2002 voter-approved constitutional amendment, Measure 26. “It certainly will have no hindrance in my ability to gather signatures,” he said. John Lindback, director of the state Elections Division, said HB 2082 will clean up what has been a “loosey-goosey” system of paid signature gatherers, where cash was traded for signatures in a sort of “back-alley process.” Lindback also noted two elements of HB 2082 that will make it easier to qualify initiatives. Signatures no longer must be separated on different sheets for each county, because the state’s new centralized voter-registration system makes that unnecessary. And petitioners now may distribute initiative petitions over the Internet for the first time, allowing an individual to sign the petition and mail it to the measure sponsors. Some say play may backfire Phil Keisling, a former Democratic secretary of state who is pushing the open-primary initiative, said Internet-based signature gathering holds new potential for ballot-measure campaigns. Keisling helped pass the vote-by-mail initiative back in 1998, and relied largely on sending petitions in the mail. The new rule eliminates the cost of mailing such petitions, he said. But Keisling said HB 2082 struck a poor balance between the need for integrity in the system and retaining citizen access to direct democracy. There are a lot of games played to deny initiatives a place on the ballot, Keisling said, referring to legal delays in approving ballot titles and seemingly petty reasons for denying petition signatures. “I’m sure that some of the people who were advocating it (HB 2082) were hoping it would displease the people who are using the initiative system a lot,” he said. Dan Meek, a Portland activist who has promoted campaign-finance-reform initiatives and other past measures supported by progressives, said Democrats who control the Legislature hoped to limit the budget-cutting and union-bashing initiatives of Sizemore, and kindred measures. But HB 2082 will backfire, Meek predicted. “It’s not going to stop the right-wing folks because they are well-funded,” Meek said. “But it makes the process terribly intimidating for any kind of a grass-roots effort.” Mannix and other conservatives also are promoting a new 2008 initiative that would rewrite the rules and reverse HB 2082, he said. Brown said two legislative committees soon will schedule hearings on a new Portland City Club report that called for other reforms to the initiative system. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.