Anti-gay-marriage petition drive hits hectic pace

Two weeks down, less than four weeks to go.

For supporters of a state constitutional ban on marriage for same-sex couples, it has been a hectic couple of weeks since they got the go-ahead to begin circulating petitions. The proposal would write into the Oregon Constitution a definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Like sponsors of other initiatives, they have until July 2 to gather the signatures required to qualify their measures for the Nov. 2 general-election ballot. They will need 100,840 valid signatures for a constitutional amendment.

“We’ve gotten thousands of requests for petitions,” said Tim Nashif, a spokesman for the Defense of Marriage Coalition, organized by the Oregon Family Council. “We are optimistic.”

Unlike supporters of other initiatives, however, coalition sponsors are doing something a little different.

Unless you are a regular attendee at some churches, a Republican or a requester, it’s not easy to find a public place in the Mid-Willamette Valley to sign the petition.

The coalition has made it easy for individuals to request petition sheets by telephone or the Internet and obtain them by mail. Petition sheets cannot be photocopied.

“What we have been finding is that within the Willamette Valley and Portland, there is not as much public petitioning going on, but outside that area, there is,” said Rebekah Kassell, communications director for Basic Rights Oregon, which opposes the proposed measure.

As soon as the Oregon Supreme Court cleared the way May 21, the coalition began direct mailings of petition sheets, each with space for five signatures. Accompanying them were color brochures with instructions, postage-paid return envelopes and a two-page appeal for signatures and contributions.

“Our most powerful weapon right now is your signature,” said the letter, which is signed by Nashif and two other coalition officials.

Nashif also is the political director and Michael White executive director of the Oregon Family Council.

Who got mail?

The mailings went to people who requested them and to a list of Republican voters obtained by the coalition. Their cost won’t be known until July 19, after the July 2 deadline for the coalition to file signatures.

The Oregon Republican Party’s central committee, at a meeting April 3 in Bend, supported the proposed ballot measure. But spokeswoman Dawn Phillips said that the party has not decided yet whether to get involved further.

“I think the Defense of Marriage Coalition has a good campaign structure set up,” she said. “They’ve got their ducks in a row, and right now, they have a good handle on petitioning.”

Where there is traditional person-to-person petitioning, Kassell said, Basic Rights Oregon volunteers will display signs reading: “This petition equals discrimination.” She said they also will observe to see whether the proper signing procedures are followed.

“But they are not there to engage the petitioners or the people signing petitions,” she said.

Kassell said her group also may file complaints with the state.

“We have reports in the Parkrose area (northeast Portland) that police had to respond when petitioners were going door to door and telling people they needed to sign or go to hell,” she said.

Mail petitions have been used by Lon Mabon of Brooks and Bill Sizemore of Clackamas, chief sponsors of many initiatives within the past dozen years.

Portland political analyst Jim Moore said that the coalition’s success in qualifying the initiative will hinge on whether it can put petition sheets in the hands of voters with ties to organizations such as churches and political parties.

“Simply sending out 100,000 mailings is not going to get you 100,000 signatures,” he said.

“It’s a big plus if you can send a petition to somebody and have it come back with five, 10 or 20 signatures, instead of one or none. But you have to have links with organizations to make it work.”

Paving the way

Moore said that such links were the key to qualifying a measure that overturned the budget-balancing tax increase approved by the 2003 Legislature.

“At every gathering of Republicans that I spoke at, they had Russ Walker’s petitions there,” he said.

Walker, a Keizer resident and the executive director of Oregon Citizens for a Sound Economy, relied on mail petitions supplemented with traditional public signature gathering. He said he advised the coalition about how to prepare for an intensive effort in a short period.

Walker’s group and other opponents took 79 days to gather nearly three times the 50,420 signatures required to refer the tax increase to voters, who defeated it Feb. 3. The coalition has 43 days to gather the 100,840 valid signatures required.

“They have less time than we did,” Walker said. “It’s going to be tough, but I think they can do it. Like the tax issue we dealt with, I think their real challenge is getting petitions in the hands of people. If they are smart, they have already laid the groundwork for them to do that.”

A national expert said he finds it interesting that Oregon groups are relying more on mail petitioning, which is more costly than using paid signature gatherers — and the return rate often is lower.

“However, for groups that have proven mailing lists, the risks are lower,” said M. Dane Waters, the chairman of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. “They have an idea of how many supporters might respond.

“I can see why Oregon is seeing a greater use of this technique, since the use of paid signature gatherers is getting more difficult,” he added. “Also, it is harder for groups to interfere with the collection process, since they can’t actually confront the signer.”

Although local evangelical and other churches support the measure and have made petitions available for signatures, many of their leaders have declined to discuss it publicly.

Tax-exempt, nonprofit charitable, educational and religious organizations can engage in limited lobbying, which includes campaigning for or against ballot measures and gathering voter signatures for measures.

But under rules of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, excessive lobbying can jeopardize their tax-exempt status. The rules also bar them from participating in campaigns for candidates or related activities.

Secretary of State Bill Bradbury said that reports might be required from tax-exempt nonprofit organizations that raise or spend money to support or oppose ballot measures because they might be considered political committees.

Peter Wong can be reached at (503) 399-6745.