July 2 was the deadline to turn in voter signatures for measures on the November ballot. One of the most ambitious initiatives fell short—and is now in federal court asking a judge to change the rules because of COVID-19.
The political action committee People Not Politicians brought together an unusual coalition of business groups and good-government nonprofits, including the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. It raised nearly $600,000.
The group wanted to amend the Oregon Constitution so that a 12-member panel made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and four members affiliated with minor parties or no party would redraw the state's legislative and congressional districts every 10 years.
Currently, the Oregon Legislature is in charge of redrawing the lines every 10 years following the federal census, with a fallback to the secretary of state should lawmakers fail to agree.
Critics of the current system, who banded together to write Initiative Petition 57, say the current process is overly partisan and results in gerrymandered districts that favor the party in power. Switching to a "multipartisan" panel of 12 regular citizens, the group says, "creates better geographic, economic, social, community and political diversity."
That may be a moot point in 2020.
To get its constitutional amendment on the ballot, People Not Politicians would have had to turn in 149,360 valid signatures by July 2. Recognizing it was going to fall far short of the required total, People Not Politicians filed a lawsuit.
On June 30, three days prior to the July 2 deadline to turn in signatures to the secretary of state's Elections Division for validation, the group filed a federal lawsuit against Secretary of State Bev Clarno in U.S. District Court in Eugene.
In the lawsuit, filed by Steve Elzinga, who served as legal counsel to late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, People Not Politicians notes that several other states, including Arkansas, Massachusetts, Michigan and Virginia, have lowered their thresholds for signatures because of the social distancing measures imposed during the pandemic.
In its lawsuit, the campaign said it had previously "requested that Oregon's signature submission deadline during this unique time be extended until August 17 and the 2018 threshold for referenda (58,789) be adopted as the most appropriate basis of demonstrating sufficient support in light of the pandemic-related orders prohibiting in-person signature gathering." (In an affidavit, People Not Politicians chief petitioner Norman Turrill said the campaign had gathered "more than 60,000 signatures.")
Clarno declined the request to lower the bar and extend the deadline, prompting the lawsuit.
"Oregon's pre-Pandemic signature count requirement and submission deadline as applied to PNP during the Pandemic and related public health orders, impose a severe burden on the Plaintiffs' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by making it nearly impossible to place the initiative on the ballot," the lawsuit says.
Part of the urgency: Since redistricting only happens once a decade, People Not Politicians won't have another chance to change the way districts are drawn until 2030. People Not Politicians is seeking a temporary restraining order.
"Unlike other ballot initiatives that may only be delayed in their implementation by two years if passed in 2022 instead of 2020, any delay in the passage of the People Not Politicians initiative will delay implementation for an entire decade," the motion for a restraining order says.
Becca Uherbelau, is executive director of Our Oregon, a union-backed nonprofit that opposes the measure and earlier sued People Not Politicians in state court, challenging the constitutionality of the initiative. (That lawsuit is pending.) She says People Not Politicians should play by the same rules as everybody else.
She notes that one initiative, IP 44, which would fund addiction treatment services, already qualified for the ballot, and another, IP 34, which would legalize the drug psilocybin (mushrooms) for certain uses, turned in its signatures yesterday. Both of those campaigns began gathering signatures last year, while People Not Politicians only began on April 9, 2020.
"Through a combination of their own choices, they didn't make it over the finish line," Uherbelau says. "When they realized they'd fallen short, they tried to change the rules at the last minute."
U.S. District Judge Michael McShane will hear arguments on the motion for a temporary restraining order July 9.