Democrats pushed a bill through the Oregon Senate Wednesday to crack down on the use of voter petitions distributed over the internet, a move that infuriated many citizen activists and Republican lawmakers.
So-called electronic petitions have become a popular tool for campaigns collecting the signatures needed to overturn laws passed by the Legislature, recall elected officials or put initiatives on the ballot.
Legislative Democrats and many of their allies, including the major public employee unions, say those electronic petitions are now being used in ways unintended by the 2007 law that created them. They say voters are often left uninformed about what they’re signing, and they fear that lax controls on the use of electronic petitions could enable signature fraud.
The debate over Senate Bill 761 was heated, with Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, charging that Democrats were trying to make it harder for voters to go to the ballot to undo much of the controversial legislation passed by Democrats this year.
Democrats have supermajorities in both chambers this session and have used their clout to, among other victories, pass a big new business tax for public schools and the nation's first statewide rent control law.
“We are effectively in the midst of a political coup,” said Boquist, adding that “one side wants to restrict the access to the ballot” by the voters of the state.
From the political left, Portland lawyer Dan Meek wrote a letter to lawmakers charging that the policy change would effectively destroy the use of electronic petitions.
“SB 761 will make it more difficult for citizens to qualify measures for the ballot,” said Meek, who is frequently involved in initiative campaigns.
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, fired back at critics that “this is not voter suppression.”
Instead, she said, it is an attempt to keep campaigns from handing out stacks of electronic petitions without having to follow the same procedures used by regular canvassers. Burdick has pointed to reports of electronic petitions being left unaccompanied in gun shops during one recall campaign against a legislator who backed gun control legislation.
The measure passed 17-11 and now moves to the House as the session heads into its final days.
Every Democrat voted for the bill except for Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose. She joined all 10 Republicans present in opposing the measure.
The bill would require that a petition only be downloaded and printed by the voter who intends to sign it — or by someone specifically asked to do so by that voter. Also, the petition would have to include the text of a proposed initiative or the law being referred. In addition to signing the petition, the voter would also have to separately sign that they had authorized the printing of the petition.
All of these things make the process more cumbersome and could impact the effectiveness of electronic petitions. Secretary of State Bev Clarno, a Republican, defends the current system and says the bill is unnecessary.
Democrats had significantly pared back the proposed changes after receiving widespread criticism. The original bill would have barred the use of electronic petitions by a campaign found to be violating any of the rules.
An amendment floated by Burdick would have shut down the use of these petitions altogether until 2023 while their use is scrutinized.
On top of that, Burdick’s amendment called for the bill to go into effect immediately, meaning electronic petitions couldn’t be used for the referendum campaign being mounted against the $1.4-billion-a-year business tax the Legislature passed this year to raise money for schools.
Those provisions helped generate a flood of critical comments to the Legislature. And though the amendment died, some Republicans made it sound during the debate Wednesday as if those provisions are still in the bill.
“We are debating the gross receipts tax, that is what we are doing,” said Boquist, referring to the business tax.
However, in its current form, SB 761 would not take effect until January, long after the deadline for collecting signatures on the tax referral.