By Kelly O’Keefe
Ballopedia Travel Journal
The day began with a panel titled “Making the Initiative Work for Oregon: Discussing the City Club of Portland’s Report on Reforming Oregon’s Initiative Process.” Leslie Johnson and Arden Shenker, both members of the City Club of Portland, presented to the group. The City Club is a non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission is “to inform its members and the community in public matters, and to arouse in them the realization of the obligations of citizenship.” 
In 2008, the City Club issued a report on reforming the initiative, referendum, and referral systems in Oregon. The report included nine recommendations for improving Oregon’s system of direct democracy. One of the Club’s recommendations is to implement an indirect initiative system.
Ms. Johnson said the Club felt compelled to issue the report in the face of a number of perceived problems with Oregon’s system of direct democracy. One such problem is that statutory law is being added to the constitution, resulting in a state constitution that many people believe is too long and addresses too many minor points. Another problem is that initiative backers engage in a system of “ballot title shopping” by submitting numerous ballot proposals with nearly identical substance in the hopes of getting a favorable ballot title name from the Secretary of State.
In 2002, with the passage of Ballot Measure 26, Oregon prohibited petition drive organizers from paying petitioners on a per-signature basis. Mr. Shenker said there is no evidence that this reform has resulted in a substantive reduction in petition fraud.
The second panel of the day was titled “Ballot Measure Campaigning in Oregon–An Insider’s Perspective: Discussing how the Initiative Process in Oregon Works with Leading Ballot Measure Advocates.” The Panelists were Phil Keisling, former Oregon Secretary of State; Ross Day and Dan Meek, both attorneys; and Ted Blaszak, the president of a petition drive management company called Democracy Resources.
Mr. Meek, a self-described progressive, lamented the fact that in his opinion, the number of progressive measures placed on the ballot has been declining over the years, relative to the number of non-progressive measures. Himself a proponent of the initiative process, Mr. Meek said that “I’m sorry to say that it is Republicans who have voted 100% of the time to protect the initiative process.”
Mr. Keisling noted that only about one third of initiatives placed on the ballot ever become law. He said that the initiative was a political tool used by progressives at the beginning of the century, but conservatives began using the initiative frequently starting in the 1970s. Mr. Keisling made the point that it is intellectually dishonest to attack the initiative process simply because we may not like the outcomes the process has given us.
Mr. Day said he believes Oregon’s initiative process is dying a death by a thousand cuts. He commented that “the problem with direct democracy in Oregon is not rampant fraud, it is rampant regulation.” He believes electronic signature gathering is the future of the initiative process.
Mr. Blaszak, whose petition firm qualifies two to four ballot measures each year, believes Oregon’s initiative process is unfairly favorable to conservatives. He said, “it’s easier to write ballot measures that attack parts of the social welfare state than it is to write ballot measures that expand the social welfare state.”
The day continued with more lively debate and discussion about Oregon’s initiative process. Stay tuned for more posts about today’s great event!
- Current City: Portland
- Next City: Salem (September 26)