No Holiday For Signature-Gatherers

Hundreds of Oregonians will be trying to take the law into their own hands in the coming week, gathering final petition signatures to put citizen-drafted bills and constitutional amendments before voters.

Backers of initiative measures must turn in signatures to the state Elections Division by Friday to qualify for Oregon’s Nov. 7 ballot.

Citizens and special-interest groups drafted 165 initiatives, but now it’s down to 13 proposals contending to make the ballot.

Topics include abortion, campaign-finance reform and a statewide spending limit.

The calendar brought good fortune to many campaigns scrambling to qualify because backers can scrounge for signatures during the extended holiday weekend to meet the Friday deadline.

On Wednesday, paid signature-gatherer Tatjana Taubert was working the crowd at Salem’s Farmers Market, trying to qualify a measure that would open Oregon’s primary elections to any registered voter.

She found a receptive audience, especially compared with the area’s prime signature-gathering spot, outside Salem Public Library.

“The library was good until at some point all the patrons had signed the petition,” Taubert said.

She said she believes in the idea of an open primary and was trying to earn money to pay her rent and save for law school in the fall.

Charles Sohn, a registered Democrat who often votes for Republicans, liked the idea and signed her petition.

“When I heard that it had to do with both parties and you could vote either direction, I like that,” said Sohn, who lives outside of Monmouth.

It hasn’t always been easy this initiative cycle.

Petitioners complain that they are getting denied access to malls and big-box stores, where large numbers of people congregate. State elections authorities also have been getting more fussy about what signatures qualify.

That is driving down the validity rate of signatures turned in and forcing campaigns to get a larger padding to ensure that they qualify.

A 2002 ban on paying signature-gatherers by the hour has crimped the supply of professional petitioners.

Some campaigns have resorted to sending tens of thousands of petitions through the mail, asking recipients to circulate the sheets among friends and family.

Now, some of those campaigns are eagerly counting the sheets that come in the daily mail, hoping volunteers come through.

Those sheets tend to have the most technical errors because one-time volunteers are prone to miss the fine print on signature sheets.

Organizers for several campaigns expressed confidence that their measures will qualify, although some are mounting aggressive efforts in the final week.

The Campaign to Protect Our Teen Daughters, which is circulating petitions to require parental notification before minors may get an abortion, is confident enough that it plans to submit signatures one day early, on Thursday, said campaign manager Sarah Nashif.

A campaign barring government condemnation for private projects turned in most of its signatures early and only needed to get 2,900 more names.

“We ought to qualify without a problem,” said Ross Day, the legal director for the property-rights group Oregonians in Action.

Also sounding confident are leaders of campaigns for regional election of judges, a state income-tax cut, beefed-up nursing-home staffing, expansion of the state prescription-drug bulk-purchasing plan and the open primary.

“I think we’re going to have no problem making the ballot,” said Russ Walker, a Keizer activist with FreedomWorks who is working on the tax-cut and judges initiatives.

Other campaigns appear to be on the bubble, such as one establishing universal health care as a fundamental right.

“We need a big week,” said Geoff Sugerman of Silverton, who is working on that constitutional amendment. “We need to get 30,000 signatures in the mail this week.”

The campaign for a state spending limit has aroused the most organized opposition so far.

“We’re still in the game,” said Jason Williams, the executive director of the Taxpayers Association of Oregon.

The term-limits campaign also might be close.

“We’re in spitting distance,” said Eric Winters, a Keizer resident working on that campaign.

Several initiatives that garnered significant money and attention won’t be going forward. Those include a proposal by unidentified gambling interests who dropped a bid to give themselves the exclusive right to build a private casino east of Portland. That measure was dogged by legal challenges, as was an abandoned effort to raise the cigarette tax to broaden health coverage for children and others.

Two measures were deemed so politically popular that they were enacted by the Legislature at its special session in April: measures stiffening sentences for sexual predators and imposing limits on payday lenders.

Other campaigns that bit the dust already have submitted proposals for Oregon’s next round of statewide initiatives in 2008.