August 3, 1998
With each election season comes a flurry of ballot initiatives. Some state governments argue these intiatives spawn "bad laws" and have introduced regulations meant to control access to the ballot. However, some political activists worry these restrictions infringe on citizens' rights. Lee Hochberg explains.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Television has the initiative story.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
November 26, 1997:
A look at Oregon's assisted suicide law.
November 4, 1997:
Washington state introduces legislation to reduce gun-related accidents.
November 3, 1997:
The Supreme Court refuses to hear a challenge to California's Proposition 209.
January 10, 1997:
The nation's top civil rights enforcer, Deval Patrick, discusses Proposition 209 .
November 7, 1996:
Medical marijuana initiatives pass in Arizona and California.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of legal affairs.
LEE HOCHBERG: In 24 states, gathering signatures has become as regular a part of the election process as kissing babies. Political workers hover outside malls and city squares, seeking signatures for ballot initiatives-proposed new laws generated outside of the legislature, that go to the election ballot if they generate enough popular support. As long ago as 1911, Oregon women used an initiative campaign to win the right of suffrage. Oregonians have approved some 90 initiatives to do things like raise cigarette taxes and legalize doctor-assisted suicide. Voters seem to love the process.
VOTER: I think it's very valuable for the individual voter who does not have an in with the legislature.
LEE HOCHBERG: But now has come a backlash, both in Oregon and other states. Lawmakers are trying to restrict the initiative process. Missouri's legislature shortened the circulation period for gathering signatures. Mississippi, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Maine passed laws restricting the right to pay signature gatherers. And in Oregon, which historically has approved more initiatives than any other state, legislators introduced 67 bills in their last session to alter the initiative process. House Speaker Lynn Lundquist says the once-vaunted instrument of populism has run amok.
LYNN LUNDQUIST, Oregon House of Representatives: The initiative system has now become almost government by the people, without the legislature hardly being a factor. You simply come forth with one idea based on people's all agreeing on that idea, and then we ask the people to vote on that, without any counterpoints developing.
SPOKESMAN ON TV SPOT: We just received this year's property tax bill, and my taxes went up over $400.
TV-endorsed initiatives: Spawning 'bad law?'
LEE HOCHBERG: Lundquist says complex initiatives promoted in TV spots, like a 1996 measure to cap property taxes, have spawned bad law. He says Oregon schools have suffered. Several measures have been overturned as unconstitutional. He proposed this session that every initiative, before going to the public, be assessed by a panel appointed by the legislature and governor.
LYNN LUNDQUIST: Instead of having a hearings process, you have 30-second sound bites that literally drive the system.
LEE HOCHBERG: But political activists like Lloyd Marbet, who heads Oregon's Coalition for Initiative Rights, say lawmakers, by reining in the initiative process, are zealously guarding their turf. Marbet notes anxiously the number of measures on the Oregon ballot this year has dropped to 10 from 16 in each of the last two elections.
LLOYD MARBET, Coalition for Initiative Rights: There has been a concerted effort to restrict Oregon's initiative process by a coalition of big corporations, big unions, and the legislators, themselves, to basically make the initiative process more difficult to function. That's what the state is trying to do.
Initiatives: A threat to government?
LEE HOCHBERG: Marbet, an environmentalist, was jailed as part of his three initiative campaigns to shut down an Oregon nuclear power plant a decade ago. He says Oregon legislators took aim on the initiative process after voters passed a 1994 ballot measure to limit political campaign contributions, a measure the state says cut expenditures in the next election by 72 percent.
LLOYD MARBET: It's a threat to government or those who are governing, period, and they want to try and help hamstring this process so the power concentrates itself down in Salem, which is our state capitol.
PHIL KEISLING, Oregon Secretary of State: This notion that there's this grand conspiracy to squelch the initiative process, and this is the weapon of choice, I just think is phony.
LEE HOCHBERG: The argument that states are trying to chill the initiative process confounds Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling. Keisling notes none of the bills to restrict the process made it out of the state legislature. He says voters are just more deliberate this year.
PHIL KEISLING: I think also there's less anger in the populace right now around political issues. I think, if anything, the operative word is closer to people just being disengaged, as opposed to really red hot and angry. You could probably also argue that it's harder to get an initiative on the ballot this time because there have been so many initiatives on the ballot, because so many people have paid to get on the ballot that the public is just saying, you know, I'm tired of it.
Redefining petition circulators' job status.
LEE HOCHBERG: Even if the Oregon legislature has not chilled the initiative process, an administrative ruling was issued by the state Employment Department that initiative supporters say has made the whole initiative process much harder. The Employment Department redefined the job status of paid petition circulators, saying campaigns should treat them as employees and not independent contractors. The state says it's trying to keep circulators from being exploited, but the ruling will make campaigns more expensive. Measure sponsors will now have to pay unemployment insurance taxes and workers compensation premiums.
DAN MEEK: Immigration forms, W-4, employer's record of tax liability, 945's-
LEE HOCHBERG: Public interest lawyer Dan Meek says the rule will cost campaigns thousands of dollars and force them to hire professional help just to fill out dozens of new forms.
DAN MEEK: You have to fill out the quarterly forms for their taxes as well. It all adds up to 58 forms to hire a single employee here in Oregon.
LEE HOCHBERG: Marbet says the added costs will doom most grassroots initiative campaigns. That's what Kevin Schaumleffle found this spring. These days, instead of political work, he's doing community service projects with the Oregon National Guard. But last year, he tried to mount a grassroots initiative campaign to change child custody laws in Oregon.
KEVIN SCHAUMLEFFLE, Initiative Sponsor: We were all set and ready to move to make this initiative work. The price was in our ballpark. We could have accomplished the mission.
LEE HOCHBERG: He says by February he had collected $20,000 and 20,000 of the 73,000 signatures he needed to qualify his measure for the ballot. But the requirement that he pay signature collectors as employees added ten to fifteen thousand dollars he didn't have to his projected costs. Five months later, he was out of politics.
KEVIN SCHAUMLEFFLE: We weren't able to meet those demands, and it priced us right out of it. You know, we have been stopped. We have been curtailed from our efforts to bring this issue to the public.
Bringing the question to the Supreme Court.
LEE HOCHBERG: Secretary Keisling answers that if the state really wanted to squelch grassroots efforts, it could simply raise the number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot from the current, rather low 73,000. At least one aspect of how initiatives are run in Oregon is out of the hands of the state and in the lap of the U.S. Supreme Court.
This fall, the high court will hear a challenge to a Colorado law that requires petition circulators be registered voters. Oregon too requires circulators be voters. Plaintiffs contend the requirement violates free speech rights and endangers the initiative process. Keisling answers that signature gatherers should be invested in the state's affairs.
PHIL KEISLING: I think there's merit on a policy level in having people who are gathering signatures and witnessing signatures to have a stake in the very issue that they're presenting voters with.
LEE HOCHBERG: Mississippi residents will vote in November whether to require circulators in that state be residents. Marbet fears attempts to regulate the process are only going to increase.
LLOYD MARBET: There's no doubt that there is a chilling effect here. The thing that I fear is that we are going to do away with the one check and balance that I thought democracy was all about.
LEE HOCHBERG: Initiative supporters have filed or plan to file lawsuits in six states to resist further challenges to the system.