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Sign My Petition or I’ll Lose My Job – Part One

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From Switzerland to Eugene: The History of the Oregon Initiative Process

2012 is an election year. From the presidential race to local ballot measures, voters are bombarded daily with candidates and issues to consider. In large cities around Oregon, you will often encounter a more personal method of campaigning: canvassing. If you have been to the DMV or a bus stop or public library, you likely have seen people canvassing. They approach with clipboards and colorful petition papers, asking if you are registered to vote and, if you are, to please sign your name and print your address for one issue or another. For the 2012 election, Oregon public advocates are attempting to get a total of 43 initiatives on the ballot.

Considering that the average petition requires 87,213 signatures to qualify for the ballot, this means the average Oregon voter has been or will be asked many times to sign many petitions. And you might wonder: Why am I being asked to sign? What am I being asked to sign? Who are these people? Do they get paid? Can I trust them?

What is this whole petition thing about?

In the next few days, EDN will take you inside the Oregon initiative process: the history, what canvassing jobs entail, and, most significantly, claims voters and former employees are making about one of Oregon’s leading canvassing companies.

How it all began

In 1902, the state of Oregon began a grand experiment in democracy. An overwhelming majority of its voters, 91 percent, approved an amendment to the state constitution, allowing a process of initiatives and referendums. The idea was to provide voters with two ways of directly changing Oregon statutes and the Oregon Constitution. The initiative process gives direct legislative power to voters, permitting any person to sponsor an initiative to enact or change laws or the Constitution. The referendum process, on the other hand, allows voters to reject legislation adopted by the Oregon Legislature. The overarching idea was to place ultimate authority to change Oregon law in the hands of its citizens.

According to the Oregon State Bar,

“The initiative is a direct democracy idea from Switzerland. In the 1800’s, the initiative process became a movement adopted by American Populist and Progressive political groups to challenge special interest groups.”

Oregon’s initiative process is a direct democracy idea from Switzerland.

Oregon was one of the first states to allow the use of the initiative process. Oregon was also the first state to place a statewide initiative on its ballot, in 1904.  University of Oregon Professor Daniel HoSang says the impetus behind this move was to free the electoral process from undemocratic influences. HoSang says,

It comes from a particular time, especially in the western U.S., where there was distrust of elected representatives, especially from the influence of big corporations. The idea was, if we could put the power back in the hands of people, we could get things done.”

Much has indeed been done since 1902. As of April 2010, the State of Oregon reported that Oregon voters have passed 118 of 348 initiative measures on the ballot and 23 of 64 referenda on the ballot. During the same period, the legislature has referred 419 measures to the people, of which 244 have passed.

Passing a law through the initiative process is not easy. The sponsor of the proposal, the chief petitioner, must first qualify the proposal to be on the ballot of a General Election. To do this, the chief petitioner must receive written approval from the Secretary of State to circulate signature sheets in order to collect signatures from registered voters. Chief petitioners must then obtain the necessary number of valid signatures and submit them to the Secretary of State no later than four months prior to the date of the next regularly scheduled General Election.

Article IV, Section 1 of the Oregon Constitution establishes the number of signatures required to qualify an initiative to the ballot. The number of active registered voter signatures required to place an initiative measure on the ballot is based upon a percentage of the total votes cast for all candidates for Governor at the last election in which a candidate for Governor was elected to a full term. The signature requirements for 2012 are: for statutory change, 6% (or 87,213); for an amendment to the constitution, 8% (or 116,284).

But for many reformers, this is a battle worth the hassle. In fact, many of the initiatives  since 1902 have held great significance for the state. Great battles of ideas have been waged within this democratic experiment. Phil Keisling, former Oregon Secretary of State, explains:

“The initiative process has often been a safety valve for ideas that have been thwarted through the legislative process. It has allowed citizens who cannot get issues addressed to go through the initiative process to do so. At the turn of the century, it was women’s suffrage. It took a while but it’s one of the most significant milestones. The initiative process finally got the legislature to do it. Or there’s the income tax. From 1920-1930, the initiative process helped abolish the state dependency on statewide property tax in favor of progressive tax.”

For a long time there were not many initiatives. In the early 1970s, for example, there were fewer than 20 initiatives in the whole country. But by 1996 there was a total of 22 initiatives on the Oregon ballot alone. When Phil Keisling was Secretary of State, he saw 50 initiatives get on the ballot. As the initiative process grew in scope and power over the years, so, too, did the stakes involved. As more groups become interested in pursuing their agendas through initiatives instead of the legislature, the costs and difficulties of successfully passing an initiative increased.

Enter the money

When chief petitioners want to get an initiative on the ballot, they face the daunting task of collecting almost 100,000 signatures to change a law, and over 100,000 to amend the Constitution. Originally, the people who would gather signatures were volunteers. For a while people could be paid to gather signatures. In 1935, Oregon prohibited the use of paid signature gatherers. However, in 1983 this prohibition was repealed. As special interest groups, corporations, and unions invested in the initiative process, money flooded the system.

Keisling says, “It’s almost now exclusively a necessity to pay for it. It’s now $300-400,000 for an initiative. The vote by mail initiative was the last to pass solely by volunteers. It’s happened, of course, because the courts have allowed it. As more people did it, the more common it became, starting in the 1990′s. When people get less inclined to sign, volunteers have a harder time doing it. The number of initiatives is down in the last decade. They are down because more and more people are leery of it. Also, it is out of reach for larger numbers of groups.”

Signature gathering is a big industry.

As the costs skyrocketed, the task of gathering signatures became a business. Groups started popping up everywhere. In 1998, there were 50 companies in California alone dedicated to gathering signatures for political efforts. In Oregon, companies included Arno Political Consultants, VOTE Oregon, the Signature Gathering Company of Oregon, and Democracy Resources.

As money flooded the system, the claims of corruption began—though money has been an integral part of politics since the beginning.

Professor HoSang says, “Money has influenced the initiative process for the last 75 years. Special interests have done this throughout the 20th century. It is not a current phenomenon. The notion of a golden period is just not true.”

But in recent decades, the influence of money on the initiative process has received significant attention. In 2002, Oregon voters agreed to amend the Constitution (Measure 26) to prohibit chief petitioners of initiative campaigns in Oregon from paying petition circulators on a per-signature basis, either directly or indirectly. The idea was that, when people are paid per signature collected, they have an incentive to cheat—make up signatures, lie about their petitions, and so forth.

“There’s something unsavory about putting a price per signature,” HoSang says.

While Oregon is one of 27 states with an initiative process, it is only one of a few states —Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming— that have banned paying per signature. The results are not exactly clear. To some people, like Keisling, this has cleaned up the process: “It’s taken the most direct, powerful incentive to cheat out of the equation.”

But to others, like HoSang, money is not the issue, per se. Rather, the problem is the process itself:

“In California they still pay per signature. But here in Oregon, where you can’t pay per signature, you still see people with four or five petitions shouting out two sentences for each. ‘Save our children!’ you know. The interaction is inevitably shallow and appeals to peoples’ base interests. There’s not a huge amount of difference in corruption between California and Oregon. It’s like any other campaign finance reform.”

Democracy Resources

Democracy Resources website (Portland)

Ultimately, whether signatures are gathered legally is up to the signature gatherers themselves and the companies that employ them. In Oregon, news stories appear every election cycle about corruption within the businesses. In 2006, for example, stories surfaced about canvassers paying homeless people to sign their petitions. Often it is difficult to pin point who is responsible for these violations, as the Portland Mercury reported about the incident:

“Many initiative campaigns…hire their petitioning work out to firms like the California-based Arno Political Consultants, which had the contract for the term limits and TABOR petitions, or local firm Democracy Direct, which was hired to run the redistricting of judges petition. These companies will then frequently hire the work out to subcontractors, who in turn hire the work out to sub-subcontractors. By the time these petitions hit the streets, it’s difficult to determine who is working for whom.

When some canvassing companies violate the rules, it can affect other companies.

“When voters hear about fraud, they get turned off from the whole process,” says Ted Blaszak, owner of Democracy Resources. “The most frustrating thing is that it’s just not hard to follow the law and treat your staff with respect.”

Blaszak’s company, Democracy Resources, has been prominent in Eugene the last few months. In fact, if you have been anywhere around Lane County, you have probably seen employees from the company. Dressed in brown vests with IDs hanging around their necks, they seem to be everywhere.

It’s less than a week until the July 6, 2012 deadline when canvassing groups must get their signatures to the Secretary of State to qualify their petitions for the Oregon ballots, so workers for Democracy Resources have been in full swing. “Are you registered to vote? Do you like kids and salmon? If so, sign.”

That’s their general approach. You will find them at the University of Oregon, the DMVs, the post offices, in the Wal-Mart parking lots, the Saturday Market, and the bus stations. They are hustling everyone they can for signatures. They are even at the beach in Florence, the OSU campus, and stationed around Roseburg.

Based in Portland, Oregon and run by Ted Blaszak, Democracy Resources says on its home page that it is “the national leader in signature gathering.” In the last twelve years, they say they have “qualified more than 50 measures for the ballot in states, counties, and municipalities across the nation.” This year in Oregon they are working on four different measures: 21, 35, 36, and 38 (the first two are for public schools and Oregon salmon fishing, the second two are for legalizing private casinos).

But while Democracy Resources claims to be the leader in signature gathering and the example of how it can be done ethically and legally, stories around Eugene have surfaced of another side to the company. With the economy in a recession and people desperate for jobs, the question arises:

What exactly does it mean to follow the law and treat your staff with respect?

PART TWO: Former and current employees of Democracy Resources have important answers to that question.
PART THREE: Are Voters getting the whole truth?

Note: Democracy Resources did not respond to numerous attempts on EDN’s part for comments or an interview on this or any other part of the investigative series.

Background, discussion and details are available on the R.L. Stollar, Journalist blog.

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