Oregon still doesn’t have campaign finance regulations, but the 2020 elections will include some important differences from past races, under bills signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown on Friday.
Flanked by members of Oregon’s congressional delegation and a bevy of state lawmakers at a signing ceremony in Portland, Brown ensured that Oregonians will be able to mail their ballots for free in elections beginning next year, and that voters could have more information about who’s funding political ads.
The governor also signed a bill requiring so-called “dark money” groups to disclose large donors, but that provision won’t become operative until December 2020.
“In Oregon we believe that your vote is your voice, and that every single voice matters,” Brown said. “We continue to be a leader and a champion for the rest of the states.”
Before Brown were three bills — representing a sizable chunk of the elections changes lawmakers took up in this year’s legislative session.
Senate Bill 861 requires that the state foot the bill for postage if voters choose to submit ballots by mail rather than turning them in at drop-box locations. The bill directs the secretary of state’s office to use pre-addressed business reply mail envelopes, though the office can also look for more cost-effective options.
Legislative budget staff have estimated paid postage could cost Oregon nearly $1.6 million in the next two years, but that cost could nearly double in a higher turnout election where more voters opt to mail their ballots.
Paid ballots have been a central goal of the Bus Project, a Portland-based group that advocates making elections more accessible, and at whose headquarters Brown held the ceremonial signing. Among other things, the group argues that paid postage will eliminate barriers to voting among the elderly and people in rural counties, where ballot boxes can be few and far between.
“We’re launching a new era of Oregon democracy, where voting is free and every mailbox is a drop box,” Bus Project executive director Samantha Gladu said at the event.
Not everyone is convinced the price is worth it. SB 861 passed the Legislature in the final days of session largely along party lines. But House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, also opposed the measure.
“I had concerns about the ongoing cost of providing paid postage on ballots without more substantive evidence that voter participation would significantly increase with this change,” Kotek said in a formal vote explanation filed with the House clerk.
Gladu suggested Friday that paid postage could increase turnout in elections by as much as 10%, but said her group “will be rigorously studying” the impact of the policy.
Related: Triumphs And Bruising Battles Made Oregon’s 2019 Legislative Session One For The Books
Brown also signed House Bill 2716, which will take effect immediately. It requires advertisements supporting or opposing a candidate to disclose who funded them. In the case of ads funded by non-candidate political action committees, the bill also requires the disclosure of the top five donors who’ve contributed at least $10,000 to those groups.
The bill saw bipartisan support in the Legislature, but was criticized as too weak by some advocates, who wanted stronger requirements for disclosing donors.
And the governor signed HB 2983, designed to give voters a glimpse into who funds so-called “dark money” groups — nonprofits that are able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars running political ads without making the sources of their funding public.
These groups include Our Oregon, a union-backed organization and Democratic ally that funds left-leaning ballot measures, and Priority Oregon, which spent more than a million dollars last year running ads against Brown.
Under HB 2983, the groups would be required to disclose their largest donors if they spend more than $100,000 on ads related to statewide races or races in cities or counties with at least 60,000 residents. For legislative races and contests in smaller jurisdictions, groups would be required to disclose donors after spending at least $25,000 on ads.
Related: Oregon Campaign Finance Reformers Focus On 'Dark Money'
HB 2983 saw bipartisan support in the Legislature, but was largely opposed by Republicans. It was also criticized by advocacy groups, who suggested the requirements could infringe on free speech rights, and by elections transparency watchdogs who saw it as too weak.
Dan Meek, a member of the advocacy group Honest Elections Oregon, called the two disclosure bills “borderline meaningless” as Brown signed them Friday. He argued the policies don’t contain provisions that will ensure voters truly understand who’s funding political advertising.
“I absolutely disagree with Mr. Meek,” Brown said when asked about those criticisms. “I think these are a huge step forward.”
The bills Brown signed Friday contain notable changes to Oregon elections, but one high-profile proposal lawmakers took up this year was conspicuously missing. A bill that would have set specific limits to campaign contributions in Oregon got a plenty of attention and debate, but ultimately fell apart in the session's final weeks.
Lawmakers did pass a ballot referral, which will ensure that voters will have a say in November 2020 on whether the state constitution should be amended to explicitly allow campaign finance limits. Oregon is one of five states that has no limits on campaign contributions, and enacting new regulations had been one of Brown’s chief goals for the now-adjourned legislative session.
Brown was joined at Friday’s signing by U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, along with U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, all of whom called for national standards similar to those Oregon has adopted.
“The whole country is turning to Oregon and going, ‘Wow, you did that. Oh, you did that. Oh, we need that,'” Merkley said.
The senator is a chief sponsor of a bill to enact a sweeping array of elections changes. It’s opposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and unlikely to stand a chance unless Democrats retake the chamber in next year’s elections.