Mercury staff

As Oregon prepares to make a fateful decision on how it funds health care for low-income citizens, plenty of voters will rely on the state’s official voters’ pamphlet.

The Oregon Secretary of State’s office recently sent out the influential 48-page document to every household in the state. It lays out Measure 101—the lone item up for consideration in the January 23 special election—and a host of arguments for and against it. But the pamphlet also contains some cynical trickery that Secretary of State Dennis Richardson’s office says it’s powerless to stop.

Two major Republican backers of the effort to kill Measure 101—which would uphold a new tax and assessment on certain parts of the health care system to help keep Medicaid afloat—intentionally slipped in screeds against the measure in the section of the voters’ pamphlet dedicated to supportive arguments.

State Rep. Julie Parrish (R-Tualatin/West Linn) and conservative political operative Lindsay Berschauer both snuck arguments against Measure 101 into the “Argument in Favor” section, instead of the separate “Argument in Opposition” section. Their sarcastic statements panning the measure sit among blurbs of genuine support submitted by Central City Concern, the Oregon Nurses Association, the League of Women Voters, Basic Rights Oregon, and other groups worried about the status of Medicaid funding now that the federal government is footing less of the bill.

It’s an underhanded way of getting their arguments in front of uninformed voters, and there’s nothing to be done about it: The secretary of state says it must print the arguments from anybody who pays to be in the voters’ pamphlet. That’s $1,200 for up to 325 words, the Statesman Journal pointed out in an editorial last week, calling the strategy used by Parrish and Berschauer a “mockery.” It’s not hard to see what the Salem paper is talking about.

“If you think our schools can spare $25,000,000 to pay for the mismanagement of Oregon’s Medicaid program, then vote yes on 101,” Berschauer’s blurb in “favor” of Measure 101 states (page 29). “If you’re as shocked as we are... VOTE NO on 101!”

Berschauer is a well-known right-wing political consultant who runs Oregonians Against More Healthcare Taxes, which opposes Measure 101.

Parrish’s blurb (page 31), also labeled as an “Argument in Favor,” rails against “Medicaid Profiteers” and “pro-tax lawmakers who hijacked the election process,” concluding, in bolded words, “Common Sense 101 says: Vote NO on 101!”

Parrish and Berschauer are two of the most prominent figures fighting against Measure 101. Both helped gather the signatures necessary to take the Medicaid funding plan away from the state legislature and put it up for a statewide vote. And they’re both among the leaders of the “no” campaign now that it’s on the ballot.

The Mercury wanted to know: Are they essentially lying to voters with the backhanded entries?

“No, it’s not lying,” Berschauer said. “Nothing we said in there was a lie. What you’re talking about is not trusting Oregonians to know the difference and make up their own minds.”

And if the proponents of the measure did a similar thing—slipping in their “yes” arguments in the “no” section—would she view it as improper?

“Just because they didn’t, it doesn’t mean anything really,” Berschauer said. “We would have slammed them back on social media or whatever avenue we have and said, ‘Look, this is what they said, and this is wrong.’ But that’s up to them to do to us, too.”

Jim Moore, a political science professor and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University, notes this type of strategy is relatively common for ballot measures.

“It’s simply a technique to put your message where you’ll think you’ll change minds,” he says. People already inclined to vote one way, he says, will read more thoroughly the argument section in the pamphlet that aligns with their views.

“I’m always kind of stunned people rely so much on [the voters’ pamphlet],” Moore says, adding that the guide could be the single most important element in the success or failure of a ballot measure.

With Measure 101, Parrish and Berschauer are trying to kill new revenue tools passed in the 2017 legislative session. In the midst of a budget deficit of more than a billion dollars—much of it due to health care—state lawmakers decided on a strategy to help fund Medicaid: a 0.7 percent tax on large hospitals and a 1.5 percent assessment on health insurance companies and other healthcare providers. Supporters say those will raise between $210 million and $320 million, which would guarantee more than 300,000 Oregonians will be able to keep their Medicaid coverage.

That move upset a bunch of Republicans. Parrish, state Rep. Cedric Hayden, state Rep. Sal Esquivel, Berschauer, and others collected enough signatures to put the legislation before voters. A “yes” vote on Measure 101 keeps the state legislature’s plan intact. A “no” vote kills it, leaving an uncertain future for those covered by Medicaid.

Berschauer claims her side needed to campaign aggressively. TBerschauer claims her side needed to campaign aggressively. That’s why she slipped in her argument in the wrong spot.

“When you know it’s a David-versus-Goliath fight, when you believe in fairness and equality, you want to get that message out as best you can,” she said.

The Secretary of State’s office, when asked specific questions about the phony labeling of arguments, linked to a vague blog post written by Secretary of State Richardson in December. Richardson—who the Portland Tribune notes “reported payments to Parrish’s political consulting firm of nearly $330,000 during his campaign for secretary of state”—downplayed the phony labeling of arguments in the voters’ guide.

“Sometimes authors purposely submit ‘Yes’ arguments in the ‘No’ column and ‘No’ arguments in the ‘Yes’ column,” he wrote. “Oregon law requires the Elections Division to place arguments as submitted. If you notice arguments that seem to be in the wrong column, please be aware that this was not an error; it was the desire of the author who submitted the argument.”

The Statesman Journal editorial board wasn’t so passive.

“[T]he statements in last week’s Voters’ Pamphlet were a cheap shot that insults the intelligence of Oregon voters,” the paper wrote. “Some might think it funny, but we don’t think Oregon voters are laughing about this chicanery... The derision shown to Oregon voters this year is inexcusable. It’s time to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”