A Time Limit for Initiative Signature Gathering

Cody Hoesly

As far as I am aware, there is no limit in Oregon on how long you can take to gather signatures to put an initiative on the ballot.  You just have to turn in the required number of signatures before the due date for the election when you want your initiative to be voted on.

Perhaps that is why, as of today, the Secretary of State has received, and the Attorney General has written a draft ballot title for, 27 different initiatives seeking a place on the 2010 ballot.  (Of those, 13 come from Bill Sizemore and 2 each from Kevin Mannix and 1000 Friends of Oregon; another 6 relating to campaign finance reform come from a different trio of citizens.)

This is ridiculous.  We're still 9 months away from the 2008 election.  Anyone wanting to change Oregon law between now and November 2010 still has time to place an initiative on the ballot for this November's election, as well as lobby the legislature in this February's special session, the 2009 regular session, and any special session that may be held in 2010.

The original impetus for the initiative system was the legislature's unwillingness to pass laws that the people desperately wanted.  The people pushing the 2010 initiatives haven't even had a chance to talk to the 2008 special session legislature.  The same is true for the 2009-2010 legislature, which, I note, won't even convene until after this November's general election, which may put new people or parties in power.  I do not believe that either the history or the purpose of Oregon's initiative system supports the concept of people pushing initiatives nearly three years before they would be voted on.

Unfortunately, the 27 initiatives proposed for 2010 are not unheard of.  Rather, they are part of a trend in recent years where initiative industry stalwarts such as Sizemore, Mannix, Jason Williams, and others have filed initiative petitions with the state earlier and earlier in the electoral cycle with each passing year.  A brief check on the Secretary of State's website bears me out.  Of the initiatives proposed for the 2008 ballot, the first 15 were filed with the Secretary of State in February and March 2006.  Of the initiatives proposed for the 2006 ballot, the first 2 were filed in March 2004.  Of the initiatives proposed for the 2004 ballot, the first 4 were filed in May and June 2002.

Almost every state that has an initiative system imposes limits on the amount of time initiative backers have to turn in their signatures.  In almost all of those states, the limit is one year or less.  No state, except Florida, has a limit longer than 20 months.

I propose that Oregon adopt a time limit.  A good rule would be to limit the initiative cycle to the time between the last general election and the filing date for the next general election (when the initiative would be on the ballot).  For the November 2010 election, for instance, such a rule would give initiative backers 20 months between the time when they could file their initiative petitions with the state to the time when they would need to turn in their signatures (from November 5, 2008, to July 2, 2010).  That is plenty of time and more generous than almost every other initiative state.  And it would return some sense to our initiative system.

  • Travis Diskin (unverified)

    There is a time limit. You may not start collecting signatures for the 2010 ballot until after the deadline for the 2008 ballot which is July 3rd.

    So the time limit is about 2 years.

  • LT (unverified)

    Thanks Cody for posting something that has nothing to do with infighting in the US Senate primary!

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    What is the source of law that imposes that time limit? I can't find one. The Initiative and Referendum Institute lists Oregon as having no time limit (see the link in the post).

    I recognize that the Secretary of State's manual linked to in the post gives the time limit you describe (on page 6), but neither of the two authorities cited for that proposition actually support it. ORS 250.045 says nothing about such a time limit.

    Article IV, section (1)(2)(e) comes closest when it states that "[a]n initiative petition shall be filed not less than four months before the election at which the proposed law or amendment to the Constitution is to be voted upon." But that provision does not state when the initiative "is to be voted upon." In other words, if an initiative stated that it "is to be voted upon" in 2010, then section (1)(2)(e) would not authorize the Secretary of State to prohibit its backers from collection signatures before July 3, 2008.

    That said, I recognize that there may be a de facto 2-year time limit in operation for signature collection. I just don't see where it is imposed by law. And it is still far longer than the 20-month time limit I propose, which would include ballot-title drafting as well as signature collection.

  • LT (unverified)

    It has been suggested in the past that if we have to allow paid petitioners due to court decision, there is something else we might consider.

    Suppose that the legal entity which collects the signatures would have to cease to exist the moment the measure qualified for the ballot. One might be "collect signatures to be tough on crime" and the other might be "Yes on 99 the anti crime measure". And what if there was a way to clarify how much of the money sent to the first group came from out of state? That shouldn't hurt true citizen ballot measures, but it might put a dent into the actions of the ballot measure industry.

  • Travis Diskin (unverified)

    In the 2008 State Initiative and Referendum Manual:


    Under Section 1 page 6 it states:

    Chief petitioners may file a prospective initiative petition for the year 2010 General Election. However, it will not be approved for circulation until after July 3, 2008(the filing deadline for the 2008 General Election).

    Under Section 1 page 13 it states:

    The deadline for chief petitioners to submit signatures is no later than 5pm, July 3, 2008. The deadline for the November 2, 2010, General Election, is July 2, 2010.

    Many (MANY) of the workings of the initiative process are proscribed by rule and are not covered in statute. You have to go into the manuals to see what the SoS mandates.

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    The manual, which I linked to above, is not a source of law. The only two sources of law that it cites for the time limit do not actually impose such a limit, as noted in my earlier comment.

    Moreover, I have found nothing in the Secretary of State's administrative rules, the relevant statutes, the state constitution, or the decisions of Oregon's appellate courts, that imposes the time limit described in the manual. I admit that I have not looked into the state Attorney General's Opinions.

  • James X. (unverified)

    This sounds like something to start a petition about.

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    Ture, while the above is not a law, it sounds more like a rule the office of the SOS has created. Agencies create rules to help implement the policies of the legislature.

  • Joshua Binus (unverified)

    Chief Petitioners are given a maximum of two years to qualify their initiatives to the ballot. As pointed out, people savvy to the process often start their work early. (The deadline for the submission of signatures is in July of the chosen election year.)

    Something to consider before calling for a shorter timeframe: True grassroots efforts need the full two years--or as much of it as they can manage--to gain ballot access. If the timeframe is made shorter, it will only lead more initiative efforts to rely on the use of professional signature gathering firms (who have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to gather hundreds of thousands of signatures in a matter of weeks.)

    This, in turn, will most likely cause the cost of ballot access to continue to increase--thus making it even more difficult for modestly funded groups to put their causes before voters.

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    Joshua is right. My first reaction, having helped run the grassroots portion of the CFR effort in 2006, is that Cody's proposed remedy would effectively kill grassroots organizing around initiatives and leave us with only companies that gather signatures professonally -- particularly on the left where we don't have the same kind of built in infrastructure of volunteers that they have on the right.

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    I don't buy the Joshua/Sal argument. If enough people care enough about an issue, getting the signatures won't be a problem. When you don't have that critical mass, you need money or a "built in infrastructure of volunteers." The Right has both in Oregon and is devoting them heavily to initiatives. The Left has both, too. The Left just isn't proactive about initiatives.

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    Name the last left-leaning ballot initiative used all volunteers to collect signatures. It just doesn't happen all that often.

    I don't care how much "critical mass" an idea has, without money it is not going to get on the ballot. Organizing volunteers around ballot initiatives in a way that is more effective on a dollar-for-dollar basis than paid signature gatherers is the hardest form of political organizing there is.

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    However you slice it, the "problem" of the Left not getting initiatives on the ballot is not with the regulations -- it's with the Left.

    The Left has the money and the people to put proactive measures on the ballot. It just chooses not to do so. Instead, it invests those resources into lobbying the legislature and other non-initiative projects. When the Left does put resources into the initiative system, it's usually to fight conservative initiatives. That's a valid choice, but that's the real reason you don't see left-leaning ballot measures.

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    Cody, I agree that there is too little investment in positive efforts on the left. Your proposed reform is wrong-headed, however.

    The only reason why there are so many ballot initiatives filed for 2010 is that the rules changed, increasing the number of signatures that need to get a ballot title from 25 to 1000.

    Also, none of your recent response speaks to my main point. The fact remains that it costs more money and takes longer to get volunteers to gather signatures than it does to pay professionals. Your proposal would do nothing more than clear the field of truly grassroots efforts -- that's especially true now that we have the 1000 signature threshhold to get a ballot title.

    The best thing anyone could do at this point is to sit tight and see what impact the massive changes that were made in 2007 have on the initiative process.

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    Anyone interested in a rundown of the changes should have a look at the post on this at Oregon Independent

  • Jon Renner (unverified)

    NEVER, EVER screw around with the Initiative process. It's all that stands between freedom and fiefdom. Don't believe it? Are you willing to gamble at that level?

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