The Future of Oregon Direct Democracy 

Three activists seek 21st-Century reboot of Oregon’s system for initiatives and referendums with their “Grassroots Petitioning Initiative”

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Three Willamette Valley citizen activists filed an initiative petition for the 2018 election last Monday in hopes of using the pioneering early 20th-Century “Oregon System” — America’s first state system of initiatives and referendums — to require the state to update the system for the internet era by allowing voters who can already register to vote online to sign petitions for initiatives and referendums the same way.

Whereas allowing the People of Oregon to sign petitions online will increase access to the initiative process for the nearly 90% of Oregonians who currently use the internet, many of whom will otherwise never have the chance to sign an official petition and help advance a citizens’ initiative to the ballot;

Whereas many Oregonians already sign petitions online, and being able to sign petitions from home will allow many people from rural areas as well as people with disabilities, illness and injuries to participate in the initiative process whom otherwise wouldn’t;

Whereas allowing petition signatures to be gathered online will lower the cost of collecting signatures for the People of Oregon, will lower the cost of verifying signatures for the Secretary of State, and will create more convenience for Oregonians whom are already civically [sic] engaged;

Whereas increasing access to the ballot will improve and strengthen our democracy, and will help to inspire more Oregonians to become civically [sic] engaged; now, therefore, be it

Enacted by the People of the State of Oregon that SECTION 1. ORS 250.105 is amended to read as follows:

(1)(a) An initiative or referendum petition relating to a state measure must be filed with the Secretary of State for the purpose of verifying whether the petition contains the required number of signatures of electors.

(b)      Signatures previously verified on a prospective petition for a state measure to be initiated shall be included in the calculation under this section for the purpose of verifying whether the initiative petition contains the required number of signatures of electors.

(c)      When filing an initiative or referendum petition, the signature sheets must be sorted on the basis of the name of the person who obtained the signatures on the sheet.

(d)      The secretary shall adopt rules establishing procedures for verifying signatures on an initiative or referendum petition, including rules which allow no less than nine tenths of the required signatures for an initiative or referendum petition to be gathered from electors digitally using the internet and computers.

(e)      A filed initiative or referendum petition must contain only original signatures. The secretary or county clerk shall verify each petition in the order in which the petitions are filed with the secretary.

(f) The Secretary of State shall create and administer a website which allows Oregon electors to sign initiative and referendum petitions digitally and is accessible via the internet. The website shall be able to be utilized with: any type of internet connection, with any of the most commonly used internet browsers and using any type of personal computer including but not limited to: smart phones, laptops, desktops and tablets.

“This puts the power back into the hands of the people!”

The “Grassroots Petitioning Initiative” is the first Oregon statutory initiative for 2018. (See story below for the first constitutional amendment proposal for 2018.) It is the handiwork of three Willamette Valley citizen activists: David Carlson, Ashley Bardales, and Justin Brice who seem well-suited to recognizing the need to bring the initiative and referendum system into the digital era.

Carlson is a late-20s native Oregonian and now lives in Aloha while attending Portland State to get a bachelors degree in environmental studies. Bardales describes herself as “a single mother, a licensed hair stylist and a social justice activist.” She worked in the “15Now” campaign to raise the wage to $15 an hour and that succeeded in getting Oregon to blaze another trail, a sharp increase in the minimum wage in the Willamette Valley with lesser increases in more rural counties. Bardales has also been a canvasser for over a decades and has worked on campaigns to register young voters, as well as fundraising for national and local environmental organizations. Brice, from rural California, appears to be the most tech-savvy of the three; he is a geographic information systems (GIS) Technician with Conservation Biology Institute in Corvallis who holds a BS in Wildlife Conservation from Humboldt State University and minor in Geospatial Sciences.

Currently, all three are registered as Democratic Party members. Brice wanted to be a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention; Bardales recently registered with the Democratic Party as well. Carlson, who describes himself as “currently” working with the Democratic Party is at the first rung of the ladder, having won election this year as a precinct committee person in Washington County, after having served as an intern during the 2015 legislative session for Rep. Joe Gallegos. Carlson also credits the $15 minimum wage effort as instrumental in making him an activist, and he has branched out since then into activism around housing rights and anti-racism campaigns such as Black Lives Matter.

The three describe the grassroots petitioning initiative as a response to the capture of Oregon’s pioneering initiative system by monied interests which has left Oregon’s democracy “stunted . . . largely due to a lack of accessibility” in Bardales’s view.


“Currently, money has major control over what Oregonians get to vote on and what bills get passed.”


The idea of an electronic petition and ballot system provided by the State of Oregon comes at a critical time. Our state and country’s democracy has been stunted. This is largely due to a lack of accessibility.

By having petitions available online, we are leveling the playing field. We are giving everyone the opportunity to be part of the people process of ballot measures. It means that those who are in rural Oregon can vote on statewide ballots.

It means that people who have a difficult time leaving their homes will be able to have their say. It also means that people will have the ability to look over the entirety of an initiative in their own homes, at their own time, before they sign on.

As a person who has been canvassing for 12 years, it gives me great satisfaction to know that when someone says they don’t feel comfortable signing on the street, I can give them the secured state-run website so they can look over the initiative and make an educated decision for themselves. This puts the power back into the hands of the people!

Brice wants to make it easier for all Oregonians to be included in direct democracy efforts, which are currently concentrated almost entirely in Portland and Eugene. He grew up in a rural farming community in California and understands the disconnect from city centers and information sharing. He wants to take advantage of the way the internet has expanded the reach of information sharing, making it easy to hear the voices of rural communities that could otherwise be left out.
All three petitioners express confidence that the Secretary of State’s computer security is adequate to ensure that signatures are genuine, pointing out that we already allow voters to register online and that online signatures will permit immediate detection of duplicate signatures and attempts to sign by people not registered to vote.

The advantages of online signature gathering, as described by Carlson, the most conventionally politically active of the three:

Our state has the best voter registration system in the country, now we need to raise the bar for engagement. The core of this is increasing democracy in our state.
 
In line with that, making it possible for people in rural Oregon and those with disabilities or sickness, to sign ballot initiatives, since many of them never see a paper [petition].
 
Signing initiatives online will reduce the barrier to entry (the average campaign spends around $400,000 just collecting signature) for grassroots activists by reducing the cost to them just to get on the ballot. We believe there is potential for saving money on the state’s side as well, given that signers will be automatically verified online instead of by hand, reducing the cost of verifying signatures.

Bardales, with the most experience of the three in grassroots activism, sees the plusses of the proposal as “Ease, Accessibility, and Affordability.”
 

Ease. Having initiatives available online means any registered voter can sign from their phone, tablet, laptop, desktop or their friendly neighborhood canvasser.

Accessibility. Most petition signatures are gathered on the streets of Portland. Which leaves out rural Oregon and folks who have difficulties leaving their homes.

Affordability. This levels the playing field for not only signing petitions, but creating them. It will be less costly for organizations and individuals to create and complete initiatives. As well as being less costly for signature verifying and petitions printing by the secretary of state.

Brice sees the effort as fundamental to public empowerment in the future, arguing that being able to participate in initiative and referendum campaigns online

  1. . . . would show that the citizens of Oregon are ready to use the internet to increase the opportunity of citizen participation in the initiative process. This allows the grassroots to take issues to the state level in a streamlined fashion and increase civic engagement across the state.
  2. I base this forecast on the fact that 90% of Oregonians use the internet and most get their news from online sources. We live in the 21st century where the internet plays a huge role in our day to day lives and I believe it’s time that citizens can use this technology to participate in democracy.

I believe that our petition would increase awareness about the issues that the citizens of Oregon care about and present the information and argument in ways that allow citizens to make informed decisions which could make it harder for wealthy interests to capture the process.

Both Bardales and Carlson share the concern with the way that the current signature gathering rules make the Oregon initiative and referendum process, which was originally created to wrest control of the legislative process from the wealthy interests, a tool that is again only available to wealthy interests. Both point to the narrow defeat of the initiative to require genetically modified foods to be labeled, where out of state corporations poured huge sums into the “No” campaign.
 

Bardales: With the ease and affordability, I think many more individuals and organizations will put forth ballot initiatives. Not to mention, more initiatives will complete the necessary signature requirements. We’ll have more ballot measures. I forecast an increase in engagement and political activeness once we have a secured website up and running for registered Oregon voters. This is going to have a huge impact on our laws, as the power will be back in the hands of the people.
 
We can use the minimum wage campaign as an example. Legislation took over and passed a wage which was influenced by corporate lobbyists. There is bigger money in lobbying legislation than ballot initiatives. This is how we can level the field.
 
Carlson: The increased engagement by ordinary citizens through the initiative process is critical to an efficient democracy, yet big money has inhibited us from getting even the most common sense laws passed.

If nothing else changes with our campaign finance rules, then issues could arise; however, this ballot initiative is just the conversation starter. Our plan is to transition this campaign into an organization to further our quest for publicly funded elections in our state and our country, along with a slew of other climate first policies, including a carbon tax.
 
We understand the influence of large, out of state money in Oregon elections . A great example is GMO labeling in 2014, where the opposition spent more than three times as much as the proponents, yet [the measure lost] by less than 1%.

One aspect of our vision for this initiative is that you will be able to see who the major donors are, who is sponsoring, the full text, links to pro and con websites, etc. in one place, so that voters are easily able to become informed on the subject in question. This will counter the propaganda spread around and diminish the ability of money to influence campaigns, since the information is in one place for all to see freely.

Currently, money has major control over what Oregonians get to vote on and what bills get passed.
 
When Ashley and I were with 15 NOW, we witnessed the power of corporate influence over the democratic leadership and the narrative around living wages. [Corporate] donations to the Democratic Party influenced the leadership to believe a $15 minimum wage would have increased unemployment and hurt small business, even though the Oregon Center for Public Policy found that even in rural Oregon, a single person without kids, needs a minimum of $14.66 to be self sufficient. That shows me our legislators knew that research was there, yet decided to do something more workable for corporations, who have the lowest tax burden in the country.
 
Oregon would be voting for a $15 minimum wage in November if the leadership hadn’t worked to block our campaign by initially proposing $13.50, which turned into a three-tier system that will keep thousands of people in poverty six years from now.
 
Had we been able to get signatures online, we would have continued our campaign and won. Unfortunately, we were unable to get enough funding or support from even the chief petitioners from the 2015 bill to keep going. These experiences showed us that our only way to force our elected officials to make the will of the people into policy is through an improved way to hold them accountable through direct democracy.

The initiative began as a joke about an app like change.org, but quickly turned into a serious discussion about the benefits of filling out initiatives online, for the activists, citizens, and the state. It will increase democracy to all of Oregon, save money for the grassroots activists, and improve the citizens capability to hold their elected officials accountable.