OSPIRG exposes flaws in anti-petition bill HB 2082

Below is a superb examination of the problems with HB 2082 which handicaps grassroots petition efforts (and has a work session today). Who are we to disgaree with the great minds at OSPIRG? Please read this great email:

To: Members of the House Committee on Elections, Ethic & Rules
From: Jeremiah Baumann, OSPIRG
Date: April 5, 2007
Re: OSPIRG Urges a “NO” Vote on HB 2082 and the -4 amendments

OSPIRG supports efforts to reduce and eliminate fraud in the ballot measure qualification process. However, Oregon’s initiative and referendum process is a cornerstone of our democratic government and OSPIRG cannot support policies that erode Oregonians’ right to participate in this process, particularly in ways that will have disproportionate effects on grassroots volunteer-based measures. We also cannot support subjecting citizen-sponsored policy efforts to a higher degree of scrutiny than other electoral campaigns or contract-based lobbying in the Legislature.

For these reasons, we urge a “No” vote on HB 2082.

Requiring 1,000 Signatures to Launch a Ballot Initiative Creates a Barrier for Grassroots and Volunteer Campaigns
Recent years have seen a surge in undesirable ballot-title “shopping” efforts as the process has been used by petitioners looking to get their campaign messages. Unfortunately, this bill makes a misguided effort to address this situation by requiring campaigns to collect 1,000 signatures to even receive a ballot title. This threshold is too high and will disproportionately affect smaller grassroots volunteer-based campaigns. Well-funded campaigns with paid petitions will be able to gather 1,000 signatures quickly but this requirement will create a significant barrier for true grassroots efforts to get started.

Secretary of State Audits for Citizen Campaigns Could be Unreasonable Burdens on Grassroots Campaigns
OSPIRG supports reasonable record-keeping requirements. However, the Secretary of State should not be required to audit campaigns where there is no suspicion of wrong-doing. Handling a government audit could consume precious resources for a grassroots campaign. No government entity is charged with auditing every lobbying organization to ensure compliance with ethics laws — why should citizen initiatives be scrutinized more rigorously? The Secretary should only be empowered to audit campaigns when there is suspicion of wrong-doing.
Unconstitutional Petitioner Registration Requirements
HB 2082 would forbid campaign to hire petitioners unless each petitioner registers with the State, provides a photograph, and undergoes training established by the Secretary of State.

It is unacceptable to require citizens of Oregon who wish to petition their government for changes to the law to first obtain the government’s permission to do so, and to further require that the government train them in how they may acceptably do so. The U.S. Supreme Court has written that “it is offensive — not only to values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society — that in the context of everyday discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak and then obtain a permit to do so.”[1] Courts have looked skeptically at registration requirements generally. In the context of political canvassing, courts have concluded that once an organization provides information on its canvassers, each canvasser may exercise First Amendment rights unless the government can demonstrate that the individual poses an imminent threat.[2]

Courts have struck down multiple laws attempting to require that canvassers be photographed or provide fingerprints. In Schneider v. State, the Court ruled that requiring photographs is a “burdensome and inquisitorial” hindrance to free speech.[3] The Court has ruled that canvassers have broad rights to remain anonymous, finding that anonymity ensures that the flow of ideas is not hampered by “fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely be a desire to preserve as much of one’s privacy as possible.” While it may be hard to imagine that requiring identification of signature-gatherers could really lead to “retaliation” or “social ostracism,” it should be remembered that some organizations in Oregon have attempted to slow down ballot measures with which they disagree by resorting to tactics such as petitioner harassment.

In addition to threatening constitutional rights, these provisions create practical problems for ballot campaigns and barriers to civic engagement. For young people, particularly low-income young people, a paid campaign job might be their first route into political participation. This experience is very new, and many of them apply and try the work spontaneously, joining a friend to attend a job interview or stopping into the office having been approached by a signature-gatherer.

Under this bill, a young person who wants to try a job as a signature gatherer would have to apply to the campaign and then 1) apply to be registered by the State, 2) provide a photograph to the State and a list of measures for which they will collect signatures, 3) certify that she or he has “read and understands Oregon law” on ballot measures (the presently proposed changes alone run to 56 pages), 4) undergo training approved by the Secretary of State, and then 5) wait two days to receive approval by the State to collect petitions and photo identification to carry while working. Many of these young people may not have the time to go through this process before finding out if they can work, or they may find such a process sufficiently intimidating as to discourage participation.

Again, this bill would hold citizen initiatives to a disproportionately high standard of transparency. Special-interest lobbyists have to file very basic paperwork about whom they represent. They do not have to provide a list of bills on which they will lobby, file financial reports as frequently as citizen initiative campaigns would under this measure, or undergo training on ethics rules or certify that they have read ethics laws.

OSPIRG fully supports the goal of reducing fraud in the ballot process, and we support provisions such as improved campaign finance disclosure and recordkeeping. But this goal creates unacceptable infringements on citizens’ right to the initiative and referendum process, and OSPIRG strongly urges a “No” vote.