Respecting Voters or Creating a Bias in Favor of Simplistic Measures?

Former legislator and frequent initiative author Kevin Mannix and his Salem ballot measure law firm “Common Sense for Oregon” are promoting an initiative for 2016 that styles itself as the “Respect Oregon Voters Act.” The act has two very different aspects: the first might be called the “Full Employment for Election Lawyers and Overtime for Judges Act” and the second could be “Soundbite Politics Act.”
 
The “Full Employment for Election Lawyers and Overtime for Judges Act” portion of the initiative would make county or state election officials very hesitant to strike dubious signatures on initiative and referendum petitions, because every time they strike a signature, that official would be subject to being hailed into circuit court in a kind of “mandamus” proceeding (a top priority proceeding) by either the voter whose signature was challenged, or the chief petitioner for the petition, with the goal being an order requiring that the signature be counted. The courts would be required to hear the challenges over the signatures in time for the challenged petitions to count towards qualifying the petition for the ballot – which means Oregon’s underfunded courts would see a sudden influx of top-priority civil cases every election year.
 
The “Soundbite Politics Act” would create a high-speed bypass for ballot titles by allowing any initiative or referendum of 100 words or fewer to be placed on the ballot verbatim, with no ballot title or summary. This part of the initiative would also define how the voter’s choice would be structured for ballot initiatives: “After an enacting or amendatory clause, and the text of the measure, the ballot shall provide for the voter to vote “Yes” as a vote in favor of adopting the measure, and for the voter to vote “No” as a vote against adopting the measure.” This seems straightforward enough, but it unclear whether this structure would apply to initiatives where the entire petition exceeds 100 words.
 
It is unclear how these two very different topics can be combined in one initiative, given the Oregon Constitution’s requirement that initiatives only address one subject: “A proposed law or amendment to the Constitution shall embrace one subject only and matters properly connected therewith.” The drafters of this proposal seem to want to suggest that challenging possibly defective signatures is not respecting the voters; however, the opposite argument could easily be made, that ensuring that only qualified voters help place measures on the ballot and preventing signature fraud is at least as respectful of voters. And how creating a special process for certain initiatives – those of fewer than 100 words – is respecting the voters is unclear, and bears no obvious connection to adding a costly legal challenge option to petition signature fights.

The People of the State of Oregon adopt the following statute:
 
Section 1.  This Act shall be known as the Respect Oregon Voters Act.  It is the intention of this Act to protect and strengthen Oregon’s long and proud history of encouraging and respecting the participation of the people in the election process.  This Act establishes respect for voters as to their signatures on a petition.  It also provides that the full text of reasonably short ballot measures be presented to voters on the ballot itself, not just in the voters’ pamphlet, so voters can readily see the actual full text.
 
Section 2.  If the Secretary of State or an elections officer disqualifies a voter’s signature from a petition signature count, the voter or a chief petitioner of the petition may bring an action in circuit court to require the counting of the voter’s signature on the petition.
 
Section 3.  In any action under Section 2 of this Act, the secretary or elections officer bears the burden of proving that there is a legal basis for the voter’s signature to be excluded from the count of qualified signatures.  If an issue is whether a signature is the actual signature of the voter, an affidavit from such voter is sufficient to qualify the signature as to this issue.  The courts of this state shall give precedence to an action under this section to the extent necessary to ensure that the secretary or elections officer counts qualified signatures within time limits prescribed by the constitution or by law.
 
Section 4.  If a voter’s signature is selected for verification as part of a signature sample, as authorized by statute, and the selected signature is excluded from the count, but a court orders that the voter’s signature is required to be counted, the voter’s signature shall be re-inserted into the results of the sample.
 
Section 5.  For purposes of this 2016 Act:

  1. “Petition” means an initiative, referendum, candidate nomination, formation of a political party, or recall petition;
  2. “Count” or “Counted” means to include the voter’s signature in the final tally as to whether the petition contains the required number of voter signatures;
  3. “Signature” means a person’s name, or a mark used by a person, to indicate that the person has signed a petition.

 
Section 6.  Except as required by the constitution of this state, laws governing ballot titles for petitions and ballot measures do not apply to petitions and ballot measures by citizen initiative that contain 100 words or fewer of text (excluding the enacting or amendatory clause).
 
Section 7.  Any ballot measure by citizen initiative that contains 100 words or fewer of text (excluding the enacting or amendatory clause) shall have the full text of the measure presented on the ballot immediately after the measure number and the enacting or amendatory clause.  No ballot title shall be used.  After an enacting or amendatory clause, and the text of the measure, the ballot shall provide for the voter to vote “Yes” as a vote in favor of adopting the measure, and for the voter to vote “No” as a vote against adopting the measure.  The full text of the proposed measure shall be printed on any petition sheet instead of any ballot title.
 
Section 8.  This Act is effective January 1, 2017.