Due to the work involved, chief petitioners for ballot measures almost always turn to professional help—namely, the industry of signature gathering. As I discuss in Part One of my expose on Democracy Resources,
“As the costs skyrocketed, the task of gathering signatures became a business. Groups started popping up everywhere. In 1998, there were 50 companies in California alone dedicated to gathering signatures for political efforts. In Oregon, companies included Arno Political Consultants, VOTE Oregon, the Signature Gathering Company of Oregon, and Democracy Resources.”
The costs of hiring these companies is huge. But hiring professional canvassers is the only realistic way to get initiatives on the ballot these days. As former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling says, ”It’s almost now exclusively a necessity to pay for it. It’s now $300-400,000 for an initiative.”
A new article by the Statesmen Journal reaffirms that the days of volunteers are just about over. According to the Journal, Oregon’s 2012 initiatives have cost campaign donors over $4 million. The National Association of Realtors spent the most: $1.1 million for an initiative preventing new real estate transfer taxes. The least spent was $338,000 for a measure legalizing adult use of marijuana (funded largely by a national group in Portland).
The sponsors of the casino petitions, Portland Entertainment Corp and Lake Oswego’s Bruce Studer and Matt Rossman, who sponsored a failed 2010 measure, spent nearly $1 million. They hired Portland-based Democracy Resources to collect signatures for them. Though, as EDN discovered, Democracy Resources’ employees systematically misrepresented their petitions to voters in both Eugene and Gresham.
All this money flooding the democratic process brought two points to the forefront of my mind, two points that the Statesman Journal themselves made:
(1) “In virtually all cases, there were a handful of major donors or just a single donor.”
(2) “Sponsors for all eight initiatives submitted by Friday’s deadline relied on paid signature gatherers.”
If the only initiatives that were successfully submitted relied on the canvassing industry, does that mean grassroots efforts are over? And if the canvassing industry is bankrolled by single or small groups of wealthy donors, is the initiative process now just a playground for special interest groups?
Are the days of the initiative process as a democratic safeguard for Oregon voters are over? (Although I guess the real question is, did such days ever exist?)
I think Susan Nielson, associate editor of the Oregonian, best explains the frustration voters might end up feeling if this process — intended to be of and by the people — becomes regularly monopolized by special interest, out-of-state, or even foreign money. (The private casino legalization campaign is partly funded by a Canadian company.) In her article, “Pot, casinos and real reform: Somehow, Oregon fixates on all the wrong questions”, Nielson says:
“I would happily vote on marijuana and gambling (or any special-interest initiative) every two years for the rest of my life if Oregon were improving in visible ways…But we haven’t yet. That’s why it’s so galling to find ourselves back in the same place. Sidetracked by casinos and pot. Waiting for things to magically change on their own.”