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Ballot measures and citizen initiatives are back in the news in Oregon — although, considering the state's wild politics, these petition efforts rarely spend too much time out of the spotlight.

Most recently, it appears that Republican lawmakers have been successful in their efforts to refer a new tax on health insurance providers and hospitals to a special election on Jan. 23. Rep. Julie Parrish and colleagues submitted more than 84,000 signatures to the secretary of state's office, well past the 58,000 or so required.

The $550 million tax is intended primarily to keep 350,000 poor Oregonians on the state's Medicaid program, the Oregon Health Plan. Republicans say they don't want to force Oregonians to lose their health insurance, but they say that there are better ways to cover those costs.

That January election date is thanks to a Democratic effort to hold the election early so that when legislators return for their short February session, they'll know if they have to deal with a big hole in the budget. (Republicans say it's a transparent effort to keep voter turnout light. Both sides may have a point.)

In the meantime, an effort to refer to voters another controversial measure — a law allowing judges to issue orders enabling law enforcement officials to temporarily confiscate weapons from people deemed an imminent threat to themselves or others — appears to have fallen flat. Supporters of that effort said they were not able to gather enough signatures.

And bubbling underneath all of these initiative issues is an effort that could make it easier to gather the signatures needed to get a measure onto the ballot. The Eugene Register-Guard recently reported about an effort being pushed by left-wing political activists that could give registered voters the ability to sign initiative petitions online, via electronic signatures on a state-run website. 

That electronic system would be in addition to the current system in which paid and volunteer gatherers collect the signatures on paper. You see them at the farmers markets and going door-to-door.

The gathering of signatures today is a grind, and it's meant to be. The idea is to weed out ideas that can't demonstrate at least some widespread support. By that measure, it appears to be working: The Register-Guard noted that out of 415 initiative petitions filed with the state since the November 2006 election, just 27 of them actually qualified for the ballot. Many of those successful campaigns had the benefit of being able to afford paid signature gatherers. So some grassroots efforts with limited resources feel as if they're locked out.

Interestingly, much of the early opposition to the electronic signature effort (currently going under the label Initiative Petition 2) has come from groups that are no stranger to the initiative process. A big opponent is Our Oregon, the political advocacy group funded by the state's public employee unions. David Carlson, the Portland State University student who is the chief petitioner for Initiative Petition 2, told the Register-Guard that Our Oregon was fearful that making it easier to put initiatives on the ballot would force the organization to spend more time fighting measures it didn't like. (For the record, an Our Oregon spokeswoman said the group believes that the current rules surrounding initiative campaigns are working fine and that Initiative Petition 2 isn't the right way to reform the process.)

In a state where both Democrats and Republicans have worked to remove barriers to voting, it probably makes sense to take a look at the initiative process. And for those fearful that an electronic system might open the floodgates to additional measures, we have to wonder: How is that so much different from what we have now? And keep this in mind as well: Just because the petition is out there in front of you doesn't mean you have to sign it. (mm)


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