The big-money effort to repeal public finance of City Hall elections appears likely to fail to qualify for the May ballot, according to unofficial results.

"What I understand is that if you put the numbers into the formula, it doesn't qualify," city elections officer Susan Francois told WW early Monday afternoon.

Last May, Portland City Council voted 4-1 (Commissioner Randy Leonard dissented) to implement a new system of publicly financed campaigns known as "voter-owned elections."

The plan provides $150,000 of public money to City Council candidates and $200,000 to mayoral candidates who obtain $5 contributions from 1,000 city residents (primary candidates who make it to a runoff could get an additional $200,000 and $250,000, respectively, for the general election).

In return for public money, candidates must agree not to accept private contributions. So far, only Amanda Fritz, running against Commissioner Dan Saltzman, has qualified for public money; Commissioner Erik Sten, who sponsored the resolution creating voter-owned elections, is trying to qualify.

Last month, the First Things First Committee, a group dominated by downtown business interests—many of whom are large political donors—turned in 40,988 signatures in an effort to repeal voter-owned elections.

That signature-gathering effort, which cost about $350,000, seemed sure to succeed, given that repeal advocates needed only 26,691 valid signatures to get on the ballot.

But the first of two signature samples projected the measure is unlikely to qualify.

Multnomah County elections director John Kauffman explained that a high incidence of duplicate signatures pulled the first sample below the level required by a formula established by the Oregon secretary of state for all ballot measures.

Kauffman added that it's not unusual for initiatives to fail on the first sample, which looks at 10 percent of the signatures gathered, but those that have a large surplus of signatures typically qualify on the second sample, which includes an additional 10 percent of signatures plus one.

But on Monday, when county elections turned over the results to the city auditor's office, the news was a surprise—the repeal appeared to have fallen short thanks in large part to unregistered voters and duplicate signatures.

Running the county figures through the state formula, First Things First appears to have fallen short by about 300 signatures.

Between now and Thursday, Feb. 16, petitioners will have a chance to review the signature sheets they turned in to see whether the county wrongly disqualified signatures.

But the chances of qualifying once rejected are slim. Francois says that since she began overseeing city elections in 1998, no petition which failed after two samples was later found to have sufficient signatures.

NOTE: This story published to the web on 2/13/2006.