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Total Recall campaign

The city of Portland doesn't believe the campaign to recall Mayor Ted Wheeler deserves more time to gather signatures to prompt a recall election. In a Friday legal filing, the city essentially characterized the recall campaign team as sore losers for blaming the city's election system for their inability to collect the required voter signatures on time.

"Unwillingness to accept election laws and processes when they do not produce a person’s desired outcome undermines our democracy," wrote city attorneys, responding to an October 4 lawsuit filed by the Recall Ted Wheeler campaign.

The federal lawsuit accuses City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, who oversees the city's elections office, and City Elections Officer Louise Hansen of violating the campaign's constitutional rights by not allowing the group a deadline extension on signature gathering. In Oregon, recall petitions are granted 90 days to gather all signatures needed to qualify for a citywide election. The Wheeler recall campaign, which kicked off in early July, was given an October 6 deadline to gather 47,788 signatures (a number that represents 15 percent of Portland voters who cast a ballot in the last gubernatorial election). According to the campaign's records, organizers had only gathered 20,000 signatures by this date.

Knowing it wouldn't meet its deadline, the campaign reached out to the city's elections office in late September, requesting an extension, explaining that COVID-19 regulations and summer heatwaves unfairly impacted their organizers' ability to collect signatures. When the city refused this request, the recall campaign sued, demanding a judge approve a temporary restraining order to immediately allow the campaign an extension.

"Pandemic-related public health restrictions are undoubtedly important protections, they impose significant burdens on democratic participation," reads the campaign's request for a restraining order. "Plaintiffs are in the unique and unfortunate position of attempting to collect signatures during not only a new, more deadly phase of an already unprecedented pandemic, but historic heat waves due to climate change."

"Faced with multiple and novel barriers to signature collection, Plaintiffs have nevertheless diligently pursued signature collection through volunteer and paid efforts," it continues. "Unlike with almost every other aspect of life, no accommodations have been allowed to petitioners."

In their response, the city's lawyers argue that few restrictive COVID limitations were in place during the campaign's signature-gathering timeframe. Specifically, they note that public gatherings were not limited by state or local policies during the course of signature gathering, and the state's outdoor mask mandate imposed in late August did not require social distancing. The city also points out that the "historic" heat wave the campaign mentions took place in late June, before signature-gathering began.

City attorneys also note that the recall campaign's previous explanation for a signature shortage contradicts their legal argument.

"One-third of the way through its signature gathering campaign, on August 11, 2021, [Recall Ted Wheeler] publicly stated that it had gathered fewer than 6,000 signatures through a mix of paid advertisers and volunteers," the filing reads. "At that time, the campaign manager, while noting the COVID-19 pandemic and heat, said that the lackluster showing was a result of the campaign not having enough money to hire paid signature gatherers."

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The city's legal response centers on the campaign's alleged misinterpretation of free speech protections to bend state and local election rules. In closing, city attorneys urge the campaign to give it another shot.

"Plaintiffs assert that Defendants’ even-handed application of well-known deadlines and signature thresholds bar Plaintiffs from placing their attempted recall before voters," city attorneys write. "Not so. Plaintiffs, in fact, can file another prospective recall petition, and gather signatures unhindered by either high heat or federal unemployment benefits."

Lawyers representing the recall campaign and the city will bring these arguments to court this afternoon. At 1 pm, District Judge Michael Mosman will hear both legal team's arguments for and against the proposed restraining order, before casting his own decision.