Oregon was not the first US state to grant women the right to vote. That honor belongs, somewhat improbably, to sparsely populated, ruby-red Wyoming, all the way back in 1890. It would take 22 years for Oregon to follow suit, but the effort nevertheless made history. That’s because it was a voter-conceived ballot measure that unlocked women’s suffrage in Oregon, the first successful attempt in US political history to amend a state’s constitution via direct initiative of the people.
In the ensuing century or so, citizen-backed initiatives—textbook examples of direct democracy—have helped define modern-day Oregon.
Citizens, not lawmakers, were behind the state’s first-in-the-nation physician-assisted suicide law in 1994, statewide vote-by-mail in 1998, and 2014’s effort to legalize marijuana. (And lest smug progressives think all citizen-backed initiatives are benign, know it was citizen efforts that led to a 2004 vote to define marriage as between one man and one woman in the state’s constitution, and to the property tax cap in the mid-1990s, which has since destabilized public school funding statewide.)
Whatever their provenance, all citizen-backed initiatives, whether they seek to overturn a legislative decision, amend the state’s constitution, or just create a new statute, have one thing in common: proponents must gather thousands of legal signatures from voters, enough to stand up to review from the Oregon secretary of state’s office, to show their idea has enough voter support to merit a spot on your ballot. It’s a time-consuming and expensive process, even without a pandemic.
That brings us to now. This November, amid a historic presidential election when turnout will surely be sky-high, Oregonians find the number of ballot initiatives they are being asked to consider is notably lower than in years past.
It’s not for lack of trying. Before the pandemic sent us all scurrying for the shelter of our homes, dozens of signature-gathering campaigns were under way on measures ranging from gun control to clean energy to highway tolls.
But it’s next to impossible to gather signature when stay-at-home orders are in effect. Spring and summer of 2020 should have been prime picking, at county fairs and farmers markets, on downtown street corners. Instead, the very idea of touching an unsanitized pen and getting close enough to a stranger to hear the intricacies of the idea you’re being asked to support gives us the collective heebie-jeebies.
As a result, only two citizen-backed measures are on the statewide ballot, a case of the early bird getting the worm, as both got a prepandemic jump on signature-gathering efforts. Both are drug-related (see: The November Ballot Is Shorter Than Usual. Here's What's on It.).
Like the handshake, it could be years before the gathering of signatures returns to public life. While we can bow or wave as a greeting, there’s no quick replacement for in-person signature collection. Moving it all online demands more of voters who may need to download, print, and sign a petition and mail it back to campaigns, since current law requires physical signatures.
The state could allow voters to electronically sign their names to current initiative petitions via their profiles in the secretary of state’s vast online database, says Mike Selvaggio, the principal at Ridgelark Strategies, a consulting firm that has advised a number of initiative campaigns. But making that change would need political will.
“The party in power does not have an incentive to make the initiative system more accessible,” says Selvaggio. “They can send something to the ballot any time they like. There is not an influential lobby pushing for an expanded system.”
Losing the system altogether, he says, may just further alienate people from politics: “Removing the initiative system removes the ability from a person to take the germ of an idea and push it into policy. It makes our political system a little less vibrant, and a little harder to get people engaged.”
In the interim, says Praxis Political’s Jake Weigler, who has worked on initiative campaigns for decades, there’s a lot that could be lost from public life. Progressive measures, like those on gun control and clean energy whose backers had hoped to make it onto ths year’s ballot to capture the younger, more diverse group of voters who typically only turn out for presidential elections, will now have to take their chances in a legislative session that already has a packed agenda or wait until 2022’s gubernatorial election and midterms.
Initiatives are also a powerful inducement to action, says longtime progressive organizer Patty Wentz: “Ballot measures are a way to show the legislature how much support there is for something,” she says. “If the legislature fails, you can let them know if you are going to run [a ballot campaign,]” and that chance might help propel them to action.
But something may also be gained, says Weigler.
A new secretary of state will take office in 2021, and could consider allowing electronic signatures, or lawmakers could get more proactive about teaming up with advocacy groups to sponsor legislative ballot referrals, which don’t need signatures.
“It may push us to revisit how we create a more responsive government,” says Weigler. “If signature gathering really is curtailed through a lot of next year, are citizens and advocates going to go to the decision makers, and say, let’s think about how to shake up the system?”
Listen: On this episode of Footnotes, news editor Julia Silverman talks Oregon’s ballot measures, as well as the state’s long history with citizen-backed initiatives.