Petitioner Scarcity

Considering it’s June, things have been eerily quiet for Jenny Goodnough.

Not quiet in the hearing-a-pin-drop sense.

It’s the quiet as in, where are all the other signature gatherers?

Typically, June of each election year marks the final scramble for signatures to meet the early July submission deadline to qualify for the November ballot. Circulators like Goodnough compete for prime locations where foot traffic is heavy or where the area hasn’t been overworked for signatures. And initiatives’ sponsors find themselves paying top dollar as the competition heightens for those last few signatures to put a measure over the top.

“I’ve always noticed a lot of petitioners around,” she said, referring to this time of year in earlier election cycles. “But I’m certainly not noticing it now.”

In fact, Goodnough, who is collecting signatures for a proposed initiative to reform Oregon’s primary elections, has had such venues as the Department of Motor Vehicles on West 11th Avenue, Sundance Natural Foods and the Eugene Public Library to herself.

This June, it appears only two petitions are in lawful circulation. At least two others have been reportedly circulated in defiance of a state-ordered suspension and another may soon be on the streets again.

The absence of the usual glut of petitioners doesn’t mean initiatives will be scarce on the fall ballot; there could be as many as 10 for voters to weigh. Rather, it’s that ballot measure advocates, including Bill Sizemore and Kevin Mannix, got started much earlier than in the past. The reason, they said, was to gather the bulk of signatures they’d need before January, when a new law took effect, setting tough new standards for how signature drives could be run.

“We worked real hard to get the signatures done by December so we could get them in before these new rules, because we knew they would greatly reduce the ability of groups like us to get things done,” said Russ Walker. He heads up the Oregon operations of the national conservative group FreedomWorks. Walker also is a petitioner on two initiative drives that have been done with signature gathering since January, and three more that still need more signatures to qualify for the ballot.

The new regulations resulted from a law passed last year by the Democrat-controlled Legislature. They marked the latest in a series of battles between conservative groups and those on the left — primarily organized labor — over the stringency of rules and their enforcement when it comes to gathering signatures to qualify initiatives for the ballot.

Among the requirements cited as causing friction:

Circulators are barred from filling in a signer’s address or other information.

Signature gathering can be suspended by the state if petitioners fail to submit payroll records sufficient to prove they are not paying circulators by the signature — a banned practice in Oregon.

Circulators must witness, as opposed to being present, as each voter signs a sheet. This means it’s no longer permissible to pass a clipboard around a meeting.

Circulators must undergo training, register with the state, and carry a government-assigned identification card while gathering signatures.

Each time a circulator is hired to carry petitions for an initiative, its chief petitioner must fill out a form and send it to the Elections Division.

Chief petitioners are legally liable for violations by signature gatherers and the contractors that employ them.

Former Democratic Secretary of State Phil Keisling is an unlikely critic of the new rules. He spent the 1990s overseeing the Elections Division, which enforces rules for initiative signature gathering.

Now he’s the chief petitioner for an initiative that would replace Oregon’s closed party-members-only primaries with an open system. All voters would get the same primary ballot. The two top vote-getters would advance to the general election, regardless of their party affiliations.

Unlike the other initiatives in play for the November ballot, Keisling’s measure has been in circulation for signatures only after the new rules took effect. So he knows more than anyone how easy they are to work with.

Keisling’s assessment: Not very.

“It’s the kind of stuff that you have to step back, shake your head and say, there’s got to be a better way to run a railroad,” he said.

“There are no good reasons for some of these things to be the way they are,” Keisling said of the rules. “But people are afraid. They say, ‘If we make it easier, we’ll get more of the initiatives we hate.’‚”

Scott Moore, spokesman for the labor-backed initiative watchdog group Our Oregon, said it supports the new rules as a protection against fraud and forgery. But Moore acknowledged a cost for such safeguards.

“When you have rules and regulations that define how you do something, it’s going to make it difficult to do that thing,” Moore said. “But the trade-off is that everyone can be secure in knowing that when one of these things gets on the ballot, it’s gotten there in a legitimate way.”