Idea: Ban All Paid Initiative Signature Gathering

Editor's Note: On February 6, we asked BlueOregon readers to suggest progressive ideas that the next Oregon Legislature should enact. Over the next several weeks, we'll post some of these ideas here - and ask you to discuss them. Good idea? Bad idea? Any suggestions?

From Dick in Coos Bay:

Years ago the [initiative and] referendum process was a positive thing in Oregon with good ideas being advanced by regular people. It helped keep Oregon at the forefront as a state constantly trying and using new ideas to create better government. Somewhere along the line it got derailed by the professional "cut taxes at any cost" group. They formed companies for profit to extract signatures from us all at any cost. They hire people from outside the state to gather the signatures and wink at the law that stops them from paying by the signature.

I think we should either do away with this corrupted process or better yet, stop them in their tracks by making it illegal to pay for gathering signatures period. This would do away with the "big business" nature of what the process has become and put it back in the arena of regular citizens advancing good ideas in a strictly voluntary manner. I say if you don't think the idea is worth enough to go gather the signatures yourself (for free) then the idea is undoubtedly not good for the state.


[If you have your own original progressive idea to propose, do it here: "There oughta be a law."]

  • (Show?)

    This sounds like a good idea to me. Of course, the numbers of signatures one could gather without paid collectors would be far lower. So the threshold should be lowered accordingly. And maybe include something to ensure it has broad support...require X number of signatures from each county, or from registered D's and R's, or something like that.

    If paid signatures are not outlawed, how about adding a requirement that signators be handed a sheet that lists major sponsors, and their phone numbers/web sites/whatever.

    Just brainstorming here...I'm sure that idea's imperfect, and I don't know what current regulations are.


  • LT (unverified)

    It would require overturning a court decision allowing paid signature gathering. If that could be done, great! Signatures from each Cong. district has been tried and maybe should be tried again.

    Another idea: An organization which collects signatures cannot contribute money to passage. For instance "Group to get McIntire's latest idea on the ballot" as a legal entitity dies when the signatures are turned in, and none of their money can go to "pass McIntire's measure" or related organizations. (What would that do to the funding of McIntire's Taxpayer's Assoc?). This idea isn't mine, but from a forum in about 2001--that very bright lady from the adult adoptee measure.

  • (Show?)

    LT - the trouble with that last idea is that it takes about 12 minutes to fill out the paperwork to create a new PAC organization. Won't hardly make any difference if you require it to be a different PAC - the underlying donors will just write their checks to the new place.

  • (Show?)

    I could support that as long as the threshold is lowered accordingly as Pete suggests. Otherwise I'd oppose it strongly.

  • DAN GRADY (unverified)

    The “California Proposition 13 Tax Revolt” against property taxes that along with high unemployment, the OPEC oil embargo causing high gas prices made 1978 a suffocating year. Jimmy Carter was a sincere, qualified leader whom faced an economic buzz saw. The level of worry, frustration, and outright fear that society worldwide was somehow coming unglued was palatable. We had to endure a “Nuclear Armageddon” movie nearly on a monthly basis, and predictions of the end were a constant. The coming Iranian Hostage Crisis, along with terrorist’s attacks, drug addiction, urban decay, and a welfare system that seem to have engulfed all aspects of government, accept of course the military.

    We Republican Party took this tax revolt, Ronald Reagan and a $64 billion dollar deficit along with the Iranian Hostage Crisis took the White House. The tide had turned, and with the Democratic Welfare Programs, and the rising taxpayer discontent, Reagan made government the issue. The theory was that nothing government did for, or too America could be done better by corporations, private enterprise, the private citizen. A man whom worked for and was catered by a movie studio for most of his adult life, now was telling us the government was the problem, and was some how a cancer on freedom loving, free enterprising Americans.

    The next 28 years have seen Republicans, Libertarians, and corporations use the “imitative/proposition process used to usurp representative government with convoluted, misleading, and outright deceptive propositions on the ballot that has reduce government to paralysis. The process needs to be made more difficult by the number of signatures required, and who collects these signatures. The ballot should have only voter generated proposals, not self serving propositions meant to manipulate government for their own benefit, even if it means hindering, or even undermine government though deceptive language.

    We can’t take to task an un-elected association of greedy corporations, religious zealots, or even single issue fanatics that have little concern with whom they harm so long as they get their result. If a politician behaves poorly with government policy issues, or governing we may take them to task at the ballot box.

    The idea that such easy access should be available though the petition process doesn’t make democracy more democratic, it only allows the worst elements with the worst intentions to have undue influence on our government.

    Happy Thoughts;

    Dan Grady

  • Kelly Nichols (unverified)

    Please sign our petition to get Shrub out of the White House and his little band of freaks with him!

  • Kelly Nichols (unverified)

    Please sign our petition to get Shrub out of the White House and his little band of freaks with him!

  • Scott (unverified)

    The initiative process is being misused, and as an example, I'm thinking of the anti-tax laws which have made it almost impossible to provide sufficient funding for education and keep our local libraries open.

    The initiative process is being used by power hungry people. Not many initiatives come from the people nowadays, the way they used to when the process was basically pure. Volunteers collected signatures because they believed in issue and wanted Oregonians to vote on it.

    With paid signature gatherers, money is the motivation, not to do what is best for Oregon. I want the intiative process to be about Oregonians making Oregon better, and not about money and special interests.

  • (Show?)

    Just to add a bit of a twist to this... Remember in the lead up to the 2004 election when some Republican-financed group was signing up voters and throwing away any who didn't sign up as Republicans? Could that be dealt with by banning the money factor since those were paid folks doing the sign-ups?

  • KG Azegami (unverified)

    I oppose this idea.

    It is incredibly hard to get signatures through volunteers alone. Volunteers that have no reservations phonebanking or canvassing will balk at signature gathering. (Why this is, I have no idea, but it's the way it works). If you were to do this, it would be next to impossible to put even "Outlaw child molesting" on the ballot.

    Even with this, it would be possible to collect signatures in a shifty way. The prime example would be Ballot Measure 36.

  • (Show?)

    Everybody seems to be saying that you can't get ballot initiatives to qualify w/o paid gatherers, but isn't paid gathering a relatively new phenomenon? Seems to me, raising the threshold a bit couldn't hurt, given all the craptacular measures we see every year (including some of the "good" ones that are so poorly written they aren't worth voting for anyway).

  • (Show?)

    Re: LT's observation, I think you'd actually have to have a ballot measure and change the constitution to outlaw paid signature-gatherers.

    I go back and forth on this constantly. I'd be willing to do it, just to see if KG's hypothesis--only bad initiatives would make it--would pan out. I'm willing to try something--

  • jrw (unverified)

    This is another amusing which I support wholeheartedly, having been a participant in several initiative campaigns which successfully made it to the ballot.

    For those who think the thresholds should be's a clue...back in the days when ALL initiatives had to be volunteer-only, guess what? The thresholds were the same.

    For those who bemoan that depending on volunteers only would not allow initiatives to get to the ballot...guess what? We used to do it pretty dang regularly, and get some pretty dang progressive initiatives on the ballot to boot.

    How do y'all think we ever got the initiative to oppose ratepayers being billed for Trojan's shutdown costs on the ballot? Sure wasn't with paid signature gatherers. The successful public power initiatives? They weren't paid.

    It wasn't the lack of volunteers that fueled the transition to paid signature gatherers. It was a lawsuit, IIRC and I'm not too much of an old fogey to recall it correctly.

    With volunteer petition circulators, at least you KNOW the person circulating the petition is supporting the cause, and can attempt to explain it coherently and accurately, because they're a supporter, and they give a damn.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I have spent nearly my entire life in this State, only out 3.5 years for a job transfer in the 1980's, then back. I really love lots of things about this State, but one thing I have learned to hate is the initiative petition process.

    1. It destroys the deliberative process intended for a legislative branch of government. If you are a reader of the Federalist papers you'll know what I mean. The purpose of a legislative branch is to slow down and make contemplative changes that affect our lives. When factions (such as religious, environmental, business, cattle vs. sheep, you name it) get all fired up they can win a popular vote and put their agenda above others. It has been a disaster for sensible government in Oregon.

    In the last 20 years we have voted I don't know how many times on Gay/Lesbian rights, we have taken away the "burden" of property taxes, and dumped education and everything else on the income tax creating havoc with the up and down funding that naturally follows income/business cycles, we have voted for prisons without funding them, etc. Measure 37 is only the latest mess to come through.

    1. It pits one part of the State against other parts of the State. The general perception is that the “fence the streams” nonsense a few years back was urban vs. rural, that the forest initiative votes were urban vs. rural, and that the cougar/bear hunting initiative was urban vs. rural.

    Just these two things alone is enough to despise the initiative process as it has come to pass.

    What I would like to see is a return to the intention of those that got the initiative process in place at the beginning. It was to be a safety value for a run-away legislature, or one that would not act. That set a fairly high standard at least as originally intended.

    So, I don’t see completely doing away with the initiative process, just making it harder. I suggest that any new rules that would limit the ability to gain signatures, and require more signatures would be beneficial to the State.

    I support the proposal in this blog (no pay for signature gatherers); I support schemes that would increase the required number of signatures; I support schemes that would require signatures be gathered in minimum numbers in either Congressional Districts, State Senate Districts, or State House Districts; and I support any changes that would generally slow down this process – even a cooling off period where a petition is filed and the legislature has one session to act before it is allowed to go out for signatures. The slower we go, the better will be the outcome.

  • theanalyst (unverified)

    I think anything that limits initiative petitions is a great thing. Certainly there have been some good initiatives, but overall I think the process is more destructive than helpful.

    I don't know if it's just the people I've run into, but many of the signature harvesters don't even know anything about the issues in question. So you get some kid with green hair and two nose rings peddling a petition dealing with managed care -- but he doesn't know what managed care is. Oh, and if you don't like that petition he has one dealing with public employee unions . . . whatever those are. The ignorance of some of these people makes the whole process look like a bad joke.

    Then there are the petitions dealing with tax issues. The wonderful thing about those is that you can have a petition that cuts taxes, but it doesn't have to specify what programs will be cut as a result. Or the petition might increase taxes, but not specify exactly where the money will go. Or the petition can specify that pet program X will receive five gazillion dollars, but doesn't say where the money will come from. And eventually the legislature has to figure that out. In some cases a petition is so poorly written that the legislature ends up having to figure out what the language even means after the resulting ballot measure passes.

  • Betsy Wilson (unverified)

    Actually, people have been paying signature gatherers since the start of the initiative process in 1903(date?). They used to get a nickel for this or that, now they get a dollar or two. I think it was prohibited for about six years, but that prohibition got thrown out in court.

    The romantic image of the initiative system ever being strongly volunteer driven is just that -- an image. Shortly after it was created political powers figured out how to use the tool to their own end.

    If you support all-volunteer signature gathering, great. But don't think that you're taking us back to any previous age.

  • (Show?)

    It destroys the deliberative process intended for a legislative branch of government. If you are a reader of the Federalist papers you'll know what I mean. The purpose of a legislative branch is to slow down and make contemplative changes that affect our lives. When factions (such as religious, environmental, business, cattle vs. sheep, you name it) get all fired up they can win a popular vote and put their agenda above others. It has been a disaster for sensible government in Oregon.

    That's all well-and-good, Steve, but there is a great deal of legislation that never gets a hearing in Salem because for one reason or another, our elected representatives lack the political will to do something.

    Measure 37 is nothing if not an extreme response to the legislature's inability or unwillingness to act on some of the inequities of the state's land-use laws. Petitions 8 and 37 are nothing if not a response to the failure of the legislature to self-police a system of campaign finance and lobbying that is out of control in Oregon. Etc.

    And in this session, it was the threat of ballot initiatives that forced the legislature to act on Jessica's Law and on Payday loans legislation, both of which were killed in the last session despite having broad-based bi-partisan support.

    The answer is not to roll back the only direct democratic tool that the public has by making things harder in the initiative process -- it's hard enough to put an initiative on the ballot and get it passed. The answer is to start using the initiative process to promote positive reform in Oregon and to build on past successes like: Oregon's minimum wage law, the $0.10 cigarette tax, the Oregon scenic waterways act, death with dignity, vote-by-mail, etc.

  • Rick York (unverified)

    To one and all,

    In 1996 the City Club did a year long study of the Initiative and Referendum. Its report can be found here:

    Unfortunately, every attempt to ban paid signature gatherers has failed the first amendment test of the US Supreme Court. So far, the current Oregon law, which bans only by-the-signature payment has held up.

    Everyone should keep in mind that any restiriction on political activity, paid or not, is probably not something we really want. Betsy Wilson's point about the history of the whole I&R process is right on the money (pun intended). Almost as soon as it came into being, the process was hijacked by special interests, both left and right (the right, of course, usually has more money to use for hijacking!).

    Finally, almost every attempt to limit the scope of initiatives has failed at the ballot box. The only restrictions the voters seem to be willing to vote for are those which tend to eliminate fraud.

    Those of you who are realy interested should read the City Club report.

    And push for a Sesquicentennial (look it up!) constitutional revision!!

  • Ramon (unverified)

    The initiative process is a legitimate constitutional check & balance against the abuse of power of state government. The state Constitution authorizes the People, through the initiative process, to be an equal branch of government. Most initiatives, especially constitutional amendments, fail. The measures that pass are usually as a result of state government abuse of power in some way, or standing in the way of policy that the public clearly wants, due to an inherent conflict of interest. (For example, term limits.)

    According to today's progressive intellectuals, self-government must be some kind of antique abstraction. No matter that our nation represents the most successful experiment in self-government ever, and that millions of people around the world long to be Americans because they are sick of tyranny of despots or unbridled majoritarians who disrespect their right to liberty.

    No matter that our nation's revolutionaries shed blood to get out from under the boot of monarchists. No matter that the initiative was the birth-child of the Progressive Era itself, the product of Progressives seeking to give the people a voice against government corruption.

    Modern progressives have an approach to government more like monarchists than republicans (small "r"). The commenters here would clearly prefer an arrangement like ... King Erik Sten. No thank you.

  • SignatureSlanderer (unverified)

    So then what are peoples feeling when a large organization spends a ton of money to send petitions to it's members - say like 50,000 in Oregon to gather signatures. Is that fair to the process or does it just depend on whether or not you are a fan of what the ballot measure is for?

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)

    What are people feeling?

    People that want to sign a petition for issue X are presumably very happy that some organization is donating the money necessary to provide them an opportunity to sign it.

    How do liberals feel about George Soros dropping millions of dollars into Air America or

    This little whole is all about trying to silence the political speech you find disfavorable (i.e., petition circulators talking with voters about initiatives they might support).

    Progressive orthodoxy has become an oxymoron.

    They want to empower the "common man" by reducing his influence in important government policy choices.

  • JayCee (unverified)

    I would support any reasonable attempt to make it more challenging for ballot measures and/or referendums to qualify for the ballot. The initiative process undermines representative democracy. It is truly the fourth branch of government in Oregon (and the most dominant) and it is not subject to any checks and balances other than judicial review.

    Signature thresholds should be increased. Signatures should be required from all five congressional districts and we should look at ways to limit or restrict paid signature gatherers. Several ballot measures currently being circulated have enormous price tags with absolutely no funding mechanisim or new revenue source to pay for them. Others will dramatically reduce state revenues and force a further mediocratization of the Oregon I grew up in and love.

    My own personal protest of this out of control system is to not sign any petitions (even if I support the issue). Take a stand for representative democracy and just don't sign and just vote NO.

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)

    JayCee wrote:

    "Several ballot measures currently being circulated have enormous price tags with absolutely no funding mechanisim or new revenue source to pay for them."

    True, but they all seem to be the "progressive" measures.

    Universal healthcare a la Ben Westlund? No means to pay for it.

    Expanding prescription drug coverage to all Oregonians? Ditto.

    The remaining measures in circulation add fairly negligible new costs to the budget.

  • Ramon (unverified)

    "Progressive" has nothing to do with either actual social or economic progress these days. The Progressive Era, in its prime about 100 years ago, came about when the public recognized the true threat to progress was political insiders corrupting our governments.

    The Progressive Era's most enduring anti-corruption legacies are: The Initiative & Referenda System, the "Commission" form of city government (which survives, among major U.S. cities, only in Portland), and the direct election of U.S. Senators (instead of selection by appointment by corrupt state legislatures).

    We know that modern Progressives detest the I&R system, trying to kill it by a thousand regulatory cuts.

    Can we look forward to other Progressive reversals? Perhaps we ought to reconsider the elimination of checks & balances, and separation of powers, under the commission form of city government. As a result of this system, the same people who run departments (executives) pass ordinances (lawmakers). Thus no executive or legislative dysfunction is ever criticized by council members; instead, failures are swept under the rug. Do Progressives support this unique form of corruption?

    And what about direct election of U.S. Senators? Isn't it time to roll back that failed experiment, and allow state legislatures a check & balance on the rapacious federal government that has become dependent on corrupting debt, subsidies and prohibitions?

    C'mon, Progressives. Show a little consistency in cannibalizing your legacy.

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