Legalizing “magic” mushrooms, kicking big money out of politics and dueling measures on guns are among the issues being pushed by advocates for a spot on the 2020 ballot. Yes, it’s only been a little over two months since the last election, Kate Brown has yet to be sworn-in for her new term as governor, and the Legislature won’t convene for business for another week.
Yet, the Secretary of State has recorded 13 active campaigns to place initiatives on the 2020 ballot. Many more are expected in coming months, despite higher signature requirements and a lackluster track record for those that do get before voters.
“It’s smart to start so much earlier now because getting a ballot title, court challenges and gathering signatures takes so much more time,” said Rep. Julie Parrish, R-Tualatin. She’s active in two 2020 initiative drives — one for public pension reform and another to curb using tax money for toll roads.
In 1902, Oregon was the first state to create an initiative system to allow citizens to place proposed laws directly before voters, , with the electorate acting as a “fourth branch” of government to go along with the governor, senate and house. The 1902 law also created a referendum process, by which voters could reject laws passed by the Legislature.
“They could review and re-vote on what the Legislature passed, and they could create their own laws,” said Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University. “The people let the Legislature do the work of governing, but the people weighed in if they saw the Legislature shirking its work or passing laws that seemed problematic.”
As of now, Oregonians could be approached in the relatively near future by canvassers seeking signatures for 2020 ballot measures to:
• Change criminal penalties on psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in so-called “magic” mushrooms.” The law would allow licensed psilocybin administration, manufacture, possession, and delivery and create a program of regulation for the state. Supporters say they are not seeking a widespread retail-level legalization like what the state has done with cannabis. Instead, it would allow for a small number of clinics to legally use psilocybin on site. Some medical studies have shown it has positive impacts on medical issues such as depression and anxiety.
• Amend the state constitution to allow laws that regulate political contributions and expenditures. State courts have knocked down previous attempts at placing limits on fundraising and spending by taking a broad interpretation of the constitution’s free speech edicts. Oregon currently allows unlimited amounts of contributions in state elections.
• Require state and county voter approval for certain transportation fees or tolls. Advocates are trying to head off proposals to start charging tolls on Interstate 5 and other highways in the Portland area.
These three initiatives have already cleared the initial hurdle of submitting 1,000 sponsorship signatures and receiving an approved ballot title so that petitions can be circulated.
Waiting in the wings are other initiatives that have been submitted to the Secretary of State, but have yet to gather the required 1,000 sponsorship signatures or are held up by legal action.
The subjects of those prospective initiatives include non-partisan political redistricting, sexual assault, civil court compensation, public employee compensation and pensions, plus three dealing with gun control or rights.
Salem attorney Kevin Mannix, who is a chief sponsor of an effort to shift control of political redistricting from the Legislature to a non-partisan panel, said a quick start is the best way to make sure that opponents of your idea don’t run out the clock with administrative chores and legal challenges.
“Some people ask, ‘Why so early?’” Mannix said. “I’ve been involved in this process for a long time. The ballot title process could be delayed as much as six months. We want to make sure we have the time to get this done.”
The upcoming session of the Legislature is expected to add to the number of measures. Lawmakers could refer issues to the voters, which bypasses the signature-gathering requirement, allowing measures to go straight to the ballot.
Democrats in control of both the state House and Senate and Gov. Kate Brown are expected to support most legislation that clears the Legislature. Republican leaders such as House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, have said mounting referendum drives to challenge laws with a vote of the electorate may be their only recourse.
“Absolutely,” Parrish agreed. “I think you’ll see efforts against any new taxes and issues such as carbon cap and trade, if they pass the Legislature.”
Parrish, who lost her re-election bid in November and officially leaves office this week, said she could be active in additional ballot measure campaigns.
“I have some time on my hands I wasn’t planning on having,” Parrish said, with a laugh.
Organizers of initiative drives and referendums don’t have recent history on their side.
For the 2018 election cycle, the secretary of state recorded 48 efforts to place an issue before voters. Five made it to the ballot. One passed — Measure 102 advocating for affordable housing, which was a referral to the ballot by the Legislature.
Adding additional effort to initiative campaigns are new, higher, qualified signature totals that must be met to get a measure on the ballot. Signature total requirements are based on the number of votes cast in the previous election for governor. A steep rise in voter registration and big turnout in 2018 moved the minimum signature totals for 2020 initiatives significantly higher.
It takes 112,020 for a proposed ballot measure dealing with state statutes, up from 88,184 in 2018. For a constitutional amendment, it’s now 149,360, up from 117,578 last year.
Veterans of past initiatives said the number of signatures needed is, in reality, much higher. The verification process by the secretary of state inevitably turns up invalid signatures, whose totals can mount up quickly. People may have signed a petition even though they aren’t registered to vote or live in the state. Most veteran canvassers suggest surpassing the official minimums by half again as many signatures to build a big enough buffer to weather challenges.
Moore, the political science professor, said voters have seen the original intent of the initiative system become warped over the decades into a tool for special interests of all kinds to spend millions of dollars to get on the ballot.
“The outcome is that Oregon’s constitution is a bit of a mess with all the stuff that the people have voted to stick in it,” Moore said.
Sometimes, just the threat of a referendum is enough to get lawmakers to curb some legislation. But the recent defeats of some ballot measures are showing that voters may be becoming more savvy about who is paying for the usual avalanche of television ads in initiative campaigns. The 2018 results show they are willing to oppose attempts to legislate by the ballot box.
“It looks to me like the moneyed interests have found that ballot measures don’t work that well to accomplish policy changes, so their money is going into legislative and statewide races — the 2018 governor race is exhibit No. 1,” Moore said. “Money seeks success, not just raising issues. Ballot measures do not seem to be a way to successfully change public policy these days.”
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, firstname.lastname@example.org