Richardson is moving forward with new rules that would allow petitioners to collect signatures while the official ballot title is still being written.
That may seem like an arcane change. But it means opponents of an initiative campaign can no longer delay petitioners for months by mounting legal challenges to the wording used in a ballot title.
Ballot titles are the short descriptions of measures that appear on ballots. They are written by the attorney general’s office, but the wording can be appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court.
The rule change “will allow them to be able to gather signatures while litigation of the ballot title is proceeding,” Richardson said in an interview Monday. “Essentially, it will stop those that want to prevent something from going forward from manipulating the system using the courts.”
Richardson is the first Republican to serve as secretary of state in Oregon in more than three decades. And his move is a change from recent predecessors who have tightened petition rules along with support from the Legislature. They had particularly said they wanted to crack down on signature fraud by petitioners.
There had also been concern in many quarters that Oregonians were being forced to wade through too many initiatives on the ballot after court rulings in the 1980s struck down the state’s curbs on paid petitioners.
A modern high point was reached in 2000 when 18 initiatives qualified for the Oregon ballot. Since then, the number of initiatives has declined.
Richardson said it has now reached the point where it is hard to qualify for the ballot if someone waits until the election year to get started.
However, opponents said it’s important for petitions to include a ballot title, which gives voters a neutral description of the initiative they are signing.
Richardson’s ruling “is really introducing quite a bit of confusion into the process,” said Katherine Driessen, a spokeswoman for Our Oregon.
Driessen’s labor-backed group has frequently been involved in initiative campaigns. She said voters should get the same information when they sign a measure as they do when they vote on it.
Richardson said he is making the changes at the behest of Dan Meek and Eric Winters, two ballot activists from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Winters is often involved in conservative causes and Meek has written a flurry of left-of-center measures.
Meek and Winters said they didn’t think voters paid much attention to ballot titles even when they are included with petitions. And they noted signers can see the actual wording of a proposed ballot measure.
Waiting for a ballot measure is not a problem for some campaigns, Meek said.
“You can overcome this delay if you have big money to spend,” he said. “But if you’re grassroots, you need every week, every month you can get.”
Richardson is taking public comments on his proposed rule change until Aug. 25 and can then formally adopt it.