A federal judge in Eugene opened the door to placing an anti-gerrymandering measure on the Oregon ballot in November even though backers of the initiative failed to gather the number of signatures normally needed to qualify.
U.S. District Judge Michael McShane ruled that the stay-at-home orders issued by Gov. Kate Brown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic placed an undue burden on groups seeking to qualify an initiative on the ballot that would put legislative and congressional redistricting in the hands of a non-partisan commission.
McShane said the usual rights that the measure’s backers have to engage in political action have been “compromised by the necessary steps the governor had to take to keep people home.”
The judge said that Secretary of State Bev Clarno can either place the redistricting measure on the November ballot — or change the rules so that backers have a much lower signature threshold to qualify for the ballot.
McShane said he will issue a written ruling next week and it was unclear what steps the secretary of state’s office will take next. As McShane was issuing his oral order Friday evening after a three-hour hearing conducted electronically, his computer feed cut out as he appeared to be wrapping up. Judges in Nevada and Idaho have issued similar rulings, and McShane said his action may not be the last word since the issue is now before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The "People, Not Politicians" redistricting measure was sponsored by the Oregon League of Women Voters and several other government watchdog groups. It also had the support of several business interests who would like to take redistricting out of the hands of the Democrat-led Oregon Legislature. Under current law, the Legislature is slated to redraw congressional and legislative lines next year following release of the 2020 census results.
Supporters of the initiative weren’t able to begin gathering signatures for their proposed constitutional amendment until the governor had issued her initial stay-at-home orders that shut down a wide variety of normal activities. Typical petition canvassing ground to a halt since it was no longer practical to approach people with a pen and clipboard to ask for their signatures.
Backers of the measure instead turned to the mail and the internet to gather signatures. They said they were able to gather about 64,000 signatures before the normal July 2 deadline — far short of the nearly 150,000 required for a constitutional amendment. Shortly before the deadline, they filed a lawsuit saying the state limits violated their federal First Amendment rights to engage in political activity.
If the secretary of state doesn’t place the measure on the ballot, McShane said he would impose the lower signature limit proposed by the backers in their lawsuit. That would mean they would only need just under 59,000 valid signatures — and they would have until Aug. 17 to continue collecting signatures. Petition campaigns generally gather many more signatures than needed because many are found to be duplicates, or not valid signatures from registered voters.
The state attorney general’s office argued that it was entirely speculative whether the initiative would have qualified even in the absence of the pandemic. They argued that supporters got a late start and didn’t adequately plan for potential difficulties.
McShane, however, argued that the measure’s backers showed “reasonable diligence” in pursuing a petition campaign to qualify for the November ballot.