This is the season when Oregon initiative campaigns normally crank up their canvassing drives to gain enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
But it’s hard to gather signatures when most people are staying at home and don’t want to get close to canvassers carrying a clipboard.
As a result, the coronavirus crisis is knocking out ballot measure campaigns with grim efficiency — to the point that Oregon this year may have the fewest number of citizen initiatives in more than four decades.
Initiatives dealing with such diverse subjects as gun control, clean energy and highway tolls now appear increasingly unlikely to make the ballot.
“The truth is, signature gathering to qualify ballot measures requires face-to-face contacts,” said Ted Blaszak, an Oregon-based initiative consultant, “and therefore with the shut-in [order], it’s impossible to function.”
Blaszak is advising his clients to look at mail and internet options to continue their campaigns. But he acknowledged that it will be a heavy lift unless normal activities are restored within the next several weeks. “I think there’s going to be a lot of political activity this cycle that is going to get shelved,” he said.
At this point, just two initiative campaigns appear positioned to get enough signatures by the July 2 deadline to qualify for the ballot — both of which revolve around easing drug laws. Each needs 112,020 valid signatures from registered voters.
The drug decriminalization campaign, funded by a national advocacy group that also helped legalize marijuana in many states, started collecting signatures in late 2019 and is close to having enough “to be certain we qualify for the ballot,” campaign manager Peter Zuckerman said in a text message.
Sam Chapman, who manages the psilocybin campaign, said his group also “got lucky” by starting early and has now gathered nearly 128,000 signatures — just over 12,000 short of its goal.
“We’re incredibly close, but the coronavirus has put all of our progress in jeopardy,” Chapman said. He added that the campaign is also turning to getting the rest through the mail or by using single-signature “e-petitions” that can be downloaded from the internet.
The pandemic-caused shutdowns slammed the door on two separate initiative campaigns run by backers of stricter gun laws.
One measure calling for tougher firearms storage requirements just recently received a final ballot title, clearing the way for signature-gathering. But Jake Weigler, a spokesman for State of Safety Action, said the group has decided to pull the plug.
“With the delays in getting the ballot title finalized and the challenge of gathering signatures in the current pandemic environment,” Weigler said, “we’ve just decided it’s not a viable strategy of trying to go forward to put this on the 2020 ballot.”
Mark Knutson, a Lutheran minister who is a leader of Lift Every Voice Oregon, acknowledged that his group may also have to abandon its quest to qualify a measure putting new restrictions on semiautomatic firearms.
His group is still waiting for the Oregon Supreme Court to decide on the final language of ballot titles for three possible measures aimed at prohibiting large-capacity magazines and more tightly regulating sales of military-style semiautomatic rifles.
Knutson said his group had planned to do numerous public events and canvassing activities to gather the needed signatures.
“We’re waiting to see if there is any other avenue that is established by the state that is even possible to help some of these initiatives along,” he said. “Because otherwise none of them will move forward. I don’t know how they would, unless they’ve already collected their signatures by now.”
Other notable initiative drives that now appear in real trouble:
- A proposal that would require voter approval for new tolls on roads and bridges unless it's all dedicated to new capacity. Former state Rep. Julie Parrish, one of the chief sponsors, said her group is still looking at alternatives. But she conceded that it is a "heavy lift" to get the needed signatures.
- Four proposals sponsored by Renew Oregon that deal with clean energy and air quality. The group has been pursuing the measures following the legislative failure of a major cap-and-trade bill dealing with climate change. None of the measures has yet been cleared for signature-gathering. Spokesman Brad Reed said the group will decide what to do when it gets that clearance. But he conceded that "under the current restrictions and with the July deadline, [proceeding] would be very difficult."
- A nonpartisan redistricting proposal sponsored by the Oregon League of Women Voters and several other groups. The proposed measures would turn the drawing of new congressional and legislative lines over to an independent commission. League official Norman Turrill said his group isn't ready to make a decision but added that the pandemic has made the task much more difficult.
In addition, the timber industry and several environmental groups have filed several warring initiative petitions. Before this year’s legislative session, the groups agreed to hold off on moving the measures forward in return for legislative action on aerial spraying and some other forestry issues. That didn’t happen because of a Republican legislative walkout that halted the session.
The timber and environmental groups on Wednesday sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown saying they are sticking to the bargain and hope for legislative action. And they said they would withdraw the initiatives filed by each side.
With the ban on large gatherings and people largely confined to their homes, initiative campaigns are taking a closer look at the internet and mail options. Both of those options have been used in the past, but generally as a supplement to paid and volunteer canvassers.
Under Oregon law, campaigns are allowed to use single-signature e-petitions that voters can download, print, sign and mail back to the campaign. But the 2019 Legislature — to the anger of many initiative activists — tightened the rules to say that voters also must be presented with the entire text of an initiative. The secretary of state’s office says the entire text doesn’t have to be mailed back. But Portland attorney Dan Meek, a longtime initiative activist, said he thinks campaigns could face a legal challenge if they don’t.
Campaigns can also mail regular 10-signature petitions to supporters, who can then gather signatures on their own. But most voters aren’t able to collect signatures beyond their households these days, so that reduces their effectiveness.
Blaszak, the petitioning consultant, said wistfully that “there’s a possibility that in three, four weeks things will return to normal, and I’ll be busier than ever.” He acknowledged that seems unlikely. Instead, he said he wished the secretary of state’s office would push back the signature-gathering deadline, just as some states have postponed their primaries.
But Andrea Chiapella, spokeswoman for the agency, said that the timing for the deadline — July 2 this year — is set in the state constitution and can’t be changed administratively.