Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 8.5.10

Restoring Confidence
Measures will reach the 2010 ballot fairly and honestly
By Kate Brown, secretary of state

When I ran for secretary of state, Oregonians from Fossil to Astoria and Brookings to Bend told me they were worried about the initiative system.

They feared that special interests had taken over our process and were getting initiatives on the ballot through fraud and abuse in the signature gathering process.

My goal, as your secretary of state, is to restore public confidence in the system and ensure that measures get on the ballot through legal and legitimate means. I said I would be the cop on the initiative street and like all good cops, I want to catch the bad guys and reassure law abiding citizens that they have nothing to worry about.

And that’s what I have done. As we go through the signature verification process for the November 2010 election, Oregonians can have confidence that the measures they see in November will truly belong there.

As a result of legislative reforms passed in 2007 and 2009, my office now has substantially more tools to crack down on fraud and abuse in the Oregon initiative process.

The new laws ban anyone convicted of fraud, forgery or identity theft from being paid signature gatherers for five years. Paid signature gatherers are required to go through a criminal background check and receive training so they know what the law allows. We do the criminal background checks, which take less than 48 hours. The training is free and available online. Unpaid signature gatherers, by the way, don’t have to take these steps.

Since the last session, we also have had more investigators on the streets watching the signature process. Just like state troopers hanging out along Interstate 5 slow down speeding cars, the presence of investigators has been a deterrent to lawbreakers.

 The new laws also give people good reasons to follow the law. If signatures are fraudulently gathered, those petitions will be tossed out and not included in the final count. We have a greater ability to impose civil penalties and increased maximum financial penalties. Before, fines didn’t exceed $250. Campaigns could factor this into their costs of doing business. Now the penalties are substantially higher, up to $10,000, creating a much stronger incentive to comply with the law.

Finally, chief petitioners are now legally responsible if their paid signature gatherers violate the law. This creates a strong incentive for petitioners to make sure their workers know the law and comply with what it says.

So that is what we are doing to catch the bad guys. Some folks have expressed concerns that these reforms have made it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to access the ballot. The evidence does not support these contentions. 

This year we’ve seen the lowest number of proposed initiative petitions submitted since 1998, but I think the economy, and not the law, is driving these numbers. Campaign contributions are down this year and traditional participants in the process like Loren Parks, who contributed millions in past elections, hasn’t made those kinds of contributions this year. In addition, Bill Sizemore, a prolific petitioner, hasn’t been as active.

We have made substantial progress toward improving Oregon’s initiative process and like all hard work there is more to be done. But as we finish the signature verification process for the proposed 2010 measures, you can be sure that these new reforms are working for the interests of Oregon voters.

Kate Brown is the Oregon secretary of state. Her office can be reached at (503) 986-2368.