Initiative petition rules suspended in wake of lawsuit

Secretary of State Dennis Richardson said he will hold off implementing rule changes allowing petitioners to collect signatures before a ballot description is finalized.

SALEM — Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson announced Wednesday he will hold off on implementing changes to the state initiative petition rules that allow petitions to be circulated before a legal ballot description has been finalized.

He called on the Legislature — which convenes Feb. 5 — to codify the rule changes to streamline Oregon voters’ ability to land proposals on the ballot.

The announcement came after Our Oregon, a union-backed political advocacy group, filed a lawsuit last week challenging the legality of the rule changes.

“Rather than ask a judge to discern what the Legislature intended years ago, it makes sense and will save court time and taxpayer money to simply ask the Legislature to provide definitive clarification during their upcoming session,” Richardson said. “Avoiding litigation by seeking statutory clarification not only saves taxpayer money, it enables the Legislature to specifically protect Oregon voters from special interest groups that historically have sought to undermine the initiative process through costly and time-consuming litigation.”

Contained in the State Initiative and Referendum Manual, the rule changes were intended to take effect Jan. 1 and would have applied to the 2018 election cycle. The manual instructs petitioners on how signatures may be collected during the ballot qualification process.

One of the changes allows petitioners to circulate a petition before a ballot title has been finalized, even when it has been appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court.

The ballot title is a short, unbiased description meant to give voters a clear understanding of what a ballot measure does.

The rule change was meant to prevent “special interests from using frivolous lawsuits to delay signature gathering by allowing grassroots petitioners to circulate petitions using the attorney general’s certified ballot title during the appeal process,” Richardson said.

Another rule change would give volunteers more ways to distribute single-signature petition sheets known as “e-sheets,” which are easier to use and have higher validity rates than multiline petition sheets, Richardson said.

Our Oregon argued that the single-signature sheets create an additional loophole for fraudulent signatures.

Ben Unger, executive director of Our Oregon, said the rule changes “threatened the integrity of our initiative petition system.”

“This is an important victory for Oregon voters, thousands of whom submitted comments to Richardson’s office calling on him to stop his anti-democracy agenda,” Unger added. “Not only does Richardson lack the legal authority to implement such changes — as confirmed by a recent legislative counsel opinion — but it is clear that his proposed changes were narrowly targeted to help only those hate groups that otherwise lack the popular support to qualify for the ballot.

Richardson’s prospects for legislative changes in his favor appeared dim Wednesday.

State Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said the Senate Rules Committee, of which she is chairwoman, plans to propose a bill to specifically outlaw circulating a petition before a ballot title has been through all legal channels and finalized.

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.

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