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Our local elections get even curiouser

If you want a glimpse of the Alice in Wonderland world awaiting the backers of Forest Grove's upcoming public safety levy, point your looking glass at West Linn. Three weeks ago, 6,640 voters in that south suburb cast ballots on their own police levy and when the numbers were tallied, they showed that 4,792 favored keeping police services at the present level.

Garnering 72 percent of the vote usually allows supporters to brag of a landslide victory. But there was no celebration in West Linn, because under Oregon's curious elections law, the levy failed.

Why?

Because several years ago, anti-tax activist Bill Sizemore, the Queen of Hearts of Oregon politics, persuaded voters to enact a 'double majority' rule.

Under the law, money measures put before voters in off-year elections cannot pass unless at least 50 percent of voters turn out.

In West Linn, only 45 percent of the registered voters cast their ballots, so the measure failed. In Tillamook County, local library supporters had an even tougher heartbreak in March. They also won a majority of votes cast on a county library funding measure, but will get no money because turnout was 49.51 percent.

Sizemore's argument was that his initiative was needed to prevent local governments from 'sneaking' tax measures onto off-year ballots when voter turnout was low enough to allow public employee unions to turn out enough supporters to prevail.

There was some truth to his logic, but rather than come up with a plan to encourage voters to engage in the electoral process, Sizemore devised a system to empower the apathetic, making a non-vote a 'no' vote.

The state's double-majority law takes the notion that every vote counts equally and turns it on its head.

In West Linn, they found out, 6,640 'yes' votes didn't count. Nor, for that matter did the 1,848 'no' votes. The people in power were the 8,100 registered voters who didn't return a ballot.

Sizemore lead us through a rabbit hole where 'yes' means 'maybe' and 'no' can mean 'yes.' Consider this: if 73 more people had cast 'no' votes in Tillamook County they would have pushed the turnout above 50 percent and the library measure they opposed would have passed. (An additional 736 'no' votes would have passed the West Linn safety measure.)

A system that rewards non-voters and penalizes those who cast ballots should be repealed. And, in fact, there are efforts in Salem to do just that, or at least restrict the kinds of elections subject to the 'double majority' rule.

Those changes, however, won't come in time (if they come at all) for the May 15 election, when the proposal to extend Forest Grove's existing safety levy is on the ballot, The levy is a modest measure (it would cost the typical homeowner an extra $6 a month) that will ensure that current city services will continue in a time when growth presents new challenges and opportunities.

That's why it is important for those who support the measure to cast their ballots and encourage others to do the same.

Otherwise, come Election Day, the view through the looking glass could show another curious victory for apathy.