Oregon signature gatherers

Jeremiah McKay knocks on the first door in a quiet neighborhood off Southeast Powell Boulevard, near the eastern edge of Portland, during the 10 a.m. lull. Families had rushed to work and school, but plenty of retirees and stay-home parents remained.
He’s wearing a sports shirt and khaki pants, trying to avoid the formal sales look he’d donned for seven years.
He’s not selling anymore. He’s collecting.
Over the past two and a half months, McKay has traversed neighborhoods in Portland, Beaverton, Gresham and Hillsboro, clipboard in hand, gathering petition signatures for one initiative about political redistricting and another that would allow the use of deadly force to protect property, a measure proponents call the “Castle Doctrine” initiative.
McKay is one of many signature gatherers recently hired as campaigns race to meet the July 2 deadline to get initiatives on the November ballot.
Petitioners face more restrictions this year than ever before. While some say the changes keep the system clean, others say the new rules hinder the citizen power of the initiative process, which originated in Oregon in 1902.
The most recent law bans people convicted of fraud, identity theft or forgery in the past five years from petitioning, and fines chief petitioners up to $10,000 if a campaign worker commits signature fraud. Campaigns are also required to turn in their signature sheets monthly, instead of all at once in July.
Regulations are necessary to ensure voters of the integrity of the initiative process, which is “a critical part of Oregon political culture,” says Don Hamilton, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kate Brown. Brown sponsored the new law in 2009.
Since 2002, three new laws have been passed that tighten regulations on initiatives. The impact of the laws is still uncertain, Hamilton says, but “I think it remains a simple and painless process to gain the ballot legally.”
John Sajo, who has worked with marijuana reform initiatives since 1982, disagrees. Over time, he says he’s watched the “burdensome” rules limiting petitioners stack up.
“They’ve almost squeezed the life out of the initiative process.”
Legislative red tape, limitations on places people can collect signatures and numerous audits are difficult on grass-roots campaigns, Sajo says. Big money initiatives will soon be the only ones to get on the ballot, he adds.
The Coalition for Patient Rights 2010, the committee behind the medical marijuana dispensary initiative, has garnered $30,209 in contributions. The two initiatives McKay is working with have gotten more donations. The Defend Your Castle Committee has received $78,371, and the Balanced and Fair Representation Committee, which runs the redistricting initiative, has gotten $471,839.
Meanwhile, the Oregonians for Water, Parks and Wildlife campaign to continue lottery funding for state parks, has gotten more than $1 million.
The medical marijuana dispensary initiative is a “perfect test” of whether the process is still fair, Sajo says. If the initiative doesn’t make the ballot, he says, it will not be from a lack of public support, but because the group does not have “billionaires backing us.”
Hamilton says the process should be easier for smaller budget campaigns, which allows people to access and print online initiative sheets and mail them in. Currently, the majority of campaign donations go toward paying on-the-street petitioners.
The way petitioners are paid changed in 2002, when it moved from a per signature model to an hourly rate in an effort to reduce fraud.
But incentives to get more signatures remain, says Joe Lehr, who works for the medical marijuana initiative and an initiative requiring voter approval for changes to gas taxes and fees.
On a bright afternoon, Lehr works alongside five fellow petitioners on the sidewalk in front of the Trader Joe’s on Southeast Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard. Focused in his pursuit, he asks each customer if they are registered Oregon voters.
Lehr has been collecting signatures for two years, and gets paid $11 per hour. But it’s understood that you should get a certain number of names each hour, he says, and there are temporary pay increases for getting more signatures.
The medical marijuana campaign looks likely to make the ballot. The statutory initiative needs 82,769 verified signatures, and has turned in 115,404.
The “Castle Doctrine” turned in more than 60,000 signatures and the redistricting initiative more than 62,000.
Many groups will continue to collect names to make sure they have enough.
Turning in signatures monthly is meant to reduce fraud and minimize the usual July rush to count all the ballots.
But it adds “a new wrinkle” that may not benefit voters, says Travis Diskin, the general manager of VOTE Oregon LLC, where McKay works. The law generates “voter intimidation,” because it is easier for organizations opposing a petition to get the names of people who signed it, Diskin says.
There have not been any requests for copies of signatures this year, Hamilton says, and there has been only one complaint to the Oregon secretary of state’s office of someone contacted by an opponent of a petition in the past five years.
For petitioners, who are the public face of the initiatives, hearing from opposition is far more common.
McKay says he’s mainly received criticism from people “who are real liberal or not into guns.” If he gets the chance to explain the initiatives nine times out of 10 the person will sign, he says. On an average day he gets 150 signatures.
His advice to the new employees that he trains every week is to “always keep a positive attitude and keep on pushing. Sometimes it’ll be hard and sometimes it will be a cakewalk.”
McKay says he “sincerely enjoys” getting to meet new people and persuading them to sign. He has become one of Vote Oregon’s best petitioners, Diskin says.
Despite changes to the initiative process, petitioners like McKay aren’t going anywhere soon, Diskin says. Even new law allowing people to access signature sheets online and mail them in “will never replace the face-to-face contact of a petitioner.”