Saving Democracy 

Legislators Aim to Fix Faulty Initiative System

After years of abuse by street corner entrepreneurs and out-of-state "mercenaries," Oregon's initiative petition process may see a series of reforms from the state legislature.

At many points during the 2006 election cycle, the signature gathering process looked more like a series of drug deals than a model of direct democracy. Convicted forgers and identity thieves were working signature sheets, homeless people were being paid on street corners per signature (a violation of state law), and companies from California and elsewhere were importing signature gatherers who left the state before their activities could be investigated.

Now, nearly a year later, it appears that the Oregon House of Representatives is going to do something about it. Last Wednesday, January 31, the House Committee on Elections, Ethics, and Rules held its first public hearing on a possible series of reforms.

"Protecting the initiative system from abuse is important, and our hearings last week show that the legislature has some work to do to restore an open and accountable process," says committee chair Diane Rosenbaum. "We face new challenges today, such as identity theft, but we also have new tools, like our centralized statewide voter database. We will work hard this session to bring this process into the 21st century."

In the next few weeks, the committee is expected to bring forward a package of legislative reforms aimed at restoring voter trust in the initiative system. While that package is far from finalized, the main thrust of the reform is likely to hold chief petitioners accountable for what their signature gatherers are doing on the street. Currently, the line between chief petitioners and signature gatherers is blurred with contractors, subcontractors, and sub-subcontractors, giving the people at the top of the chain plausible deniability when the people on the street break the law.

Other ideas that might be included are requiring that all signature gatherers register with the secretary of state, wear ID badges, and undergo training before they can hit the street.

Another compelling idea would change the way campaigns are penalized when they are caught breaking the law. Currently, they are merely fined a few thousand dollars—small change for a $100,000 or more petition campaign—but their signature sheets are still considered valid. Instead, the legislature may consider changing the law so that the penalty matches the crime—by throwing out signature sheets.

But here is perhaps the first major—if not totally obvious—step: The secretary of state's office is now, for the first time, funding a fulltime officer in the elections division to investigate violations of signature gathering laws. Previously, violations, which were easily observable for months on Portland streets, went uninvestigated, sending a message to petition circulators that state law wasn't being enforced.

Rosenbaum's committee expects to move a reform bill to the House floor in about a month. A full-floor vote—and the future of the initiative process in Oregon—will be scheduled before the end of June.

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