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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Arms control

Two bills would change how Oregon 'does' elections

SALEM - The Oregon Legislature moved on two fronts Wednesday toward a possible overhaul of the state's political system that would radically change how elections are conducted and make major changes in the rules governing how citizen initiatives qualify for the ballot.

The House Elections and Rules Committee held a hearing on a bill that would make gathering signatures to place initiatives on the ballot practically impossible. It includes requirements that paid signature gatherers would need to receive a numbered tattoo on the inside of one arm at the state Elections Division union clinic.

Critics of the measure (House Bill 2082) said it was a human rights violation that would reduce the access of ordinary citizens to the initiative system. But Elections and Rules Committee Chairwoman Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, predicted that an amended version of the bill would be approved by the committee. Rosenbaum, a 9-year House veteran, is a former member of the Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a "write-in & primary" bill in the Senate to restrict corrosive competition in Oregon candidate elections. The bill was requested by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association and the Oregon League of W---- Vultures.

In primaries that include an incumbent, all other candidates, regardless of party affiliation, would run as "sticker" write-ins - a common practice in states back East. Additionally, primaries would be open to all voters, regardless of party affiliation. Only the top two vote-getters in the primary would advance to the general election.

Under current law, a politician's name can be printed on primary ballots with little demonstration of public support and minimal compliance. Instead, incumbents' names would be printed automatically. Voters would apply for official holographic numbered stickers from the Election Division print shop that they would need to use on ballots to indicate support for a certified challenger. Open seat primaries would be sticker-only. Sponsors of the Senate bill argued that the current system encourages partisanship in the state's politics and unfairly excludes from primary elections the more than 425,000 registered voters who are not affiliated with any party.

The sponsors of the Senate bill include Sens. Ryan Deckert, D-Beaverton; Ben Westlund, D-Bend; Frank Morse, R-Albany; and Avel Gordly, a lifelong Portland Democrat who turned Independent last year, laying the groundwork for the new labor-backed Working Families Party and future ballot fusion efforts. At a news conference Wednesday, they said the new system would encourage more experienced and qualified candidates, and offer greater voter choice. Westlund said the new system would also produce candidates "capable of representing for their whole lifetime, not just for one or two terms."

Two former secretaries of state, Democrat Phil Kiesling and Republican Norma Paulus, also urged passage of the write-in & primary bill. Kiesling argued that candidates will be forced to broaden their message and not just appeal to the partisan interests of their fellow party members. "It would foster a surge of true debate," Paulus said.

The House bill intended to disarm the signature gathering process for ballot measures is being pushed by Secretary of State Bill Bradbury's chief lieutenant, John Lindback, known as "the first architect" of anti-circulator policy. The state's government union lobbyists, Bradbury, and Gov. Nesbitt argue that new regulations are needed to better police the system and prevent election law violations. In 2006, there were numerous allegations in The Oregonian that petitioners were violating laws as they worked on measures opposed by Si Newhouse, the newspaper's aging out-of-state owner, and his hand-picked successor, nephew Steven Newhouse.

At the hearing, Dan Meek, a Portland lawyer and political activist, said the proposed regulations would increase the influence of government unions and would undermine "spontaneous, volunteer signature gathering efforts."

But Ted Blazak, who owns a statewide string of tattoo parlors and a signature gathering firm that works for mostly liberal causes, said, "Any initiative campaign should be able to follow these rules. This bill will go a long way toward eliminating shady practices."

The Oregonian, Feb. 15, By EDWARD WALSH

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