Group says petition sponsors defy signature gathering ban

In the latest skirmish in the war over Oregon’s initiative system, a liberal group has accused the sponsors to two citizens’ initiatives of violating state law by defying a ban on gathering signatures until the sponsors comply with a state record-keeping requirement.

Our Oregon, largely funded by organized labor, has filed a formal complaint against the sponsors with the state Elections Division, which has opened an investigation.

Tim Trickey, head of a company that gathers citizen signatures for conservative initiatives, confirmed Wednesday that his employees continue to circulate petitions seeking to put the two initiatives on the November general election ballot. He said the state ban on gathering signatures is an unconstitutional infringement of the sponsors’ free speech rights.

“To stop circulating a petition with so little time left is effectively killing the petition,” Trickey said. “I believe that is their intention.”

Under a new state law, six months after an initiative is certified for signature gathering, the sponsor is told to submit payroll and other records to the Elections Division, the attorney general or the Bureau of Labor and Industries. The sponsor then has 10 days to comply with the law or stop gathering signatures.

The Legislature enacted the new law to tighten enforcement of Measure 26, the 2002 ballot measure that banned payment of signature gatherers based on the number of signatures they obtain.

In January, the Elections Division banned signature gathering for 14 initiatives based on noncompliance with the law. It later added three other initiatives to the prohibition.

The sponsors of Initiative Petitions 51 and 53, which are being challenged by Our Oregon, submitted records to the Elections Division, and the ban on their gathering of signatures was lifted March 27. But Elections Division officials said they later concluded that the records submitted were insufficient, and the ban was reimposed May 9. It remains in effect.

The two initiatives are aimed directly at trial lawyers, key allies of the Democratic Party. One would limit the amount of contingency fees a lawyer could collect in civil cases to 25 percent of the first $25,000 awarded to a client and 10 percent of any additional amount.

The other initiative would require courts to sanction lawyers who file “frivolous” legal claims.

One of the sponsors of the initiatives is Russ Walker, Oregon director of FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative group. Walker, who is also vice chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, said he has filed suit in federal district court in Eugene challenging the Elections Division’s authority to ban signature gathering.

Walker said the new record-keeping law imposed “an undue burden” on initiative sponsors and was designed to limit access to the initiative process by political activists.

Kevin Looper, executive director of Our Oregon, said two witnesses saw signatures being gathered for the two initiatives. He said one incident occurred May 24 at the Farmers Market at Portland State University. The other happened May 21 on a MAX Blue Line train in downtown Portland.

“They are clearly not in compliance with the law,” Looper said.

John Lindback, director of the Elections Division, said the sponsors of the two initiatives know what additional records they must submit for the ban on signature gathering to be lifted. He said his office will check the dates on all signatures submitted for initiatives and that signatures dated while the ban was in effect will not be counted.

Initiative sponsors have until July 3 to submit enough valid signatures to qualify the initiatives for the November ballot.