Image for As Primary Votes Are Cast, Initiative Backers Look to the Fall

Oregonians have received their May 17 primary ballots to decide what candidates move on to the general election in the fall. Meanwhile, ballot measure backers are raising big sums to qualify initiatives that include liquor sales in grocery stores, legalized prostitution and punishment for state lawmakers who engage in walkouts.

No initiatives have qualified so far for the November general election ballot, according to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. Proponents have until July 8 to turn in enough voter signatures to qualify their measures.

Big money is involved in pushing a handful of initiatives. Ninety percent of all money raised for initiatives has gone to support measures addressing legislative walkouts, allowing sale of liquor in grocery stores and legalizing sex work.

Chart Credit: Mark Friesen/The Oregonian

Almost $1.3 million has been ponied up, largely by public employee unions, to punish legislators with 10 unexcused absences on floor sessions by disqualifying them from seeking re-election. Polling conducted last year suggests the idea is popular with voters. Legislative Republicans, who are in the minority, have staged walkouts in the 2019, 2020 and 2021 sessions to deny majority Democrats quorums needed to conduct floor votes.

In her campaign advertising, GOP gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan touts the walkout she led to block Democratic environmental legislation. She and other Republicans defend walkouts as one of the only tools available to legislative minorities.

Backers of the initiative express confidence they will obtain the 149,360 valid signatures required to get on the November ballot after already spending $750,000 for legal drafting, voter sampling and signature collection. A related measure has been filed that only would fine absentee lawmakers.

The grocery industry is making its third attempt to break the state’s monopoly on selling liquor through its licensed retail stores, a system that grocers claim is expensive and outdated. Previous attempts to put the issue on the ballot failed to attract enough signatures. Backers say they have spent $31,000 on signature-gathering this time around.

Oregon beer and wine distributors, the state’s largest teacher union, craft distillers and the union representing state liquor warehouse employees are lined up against the measure. Small Oregon-based distillers fear they wouldn’t get as much shelf space in grocery stores as they do now in state liquor stores.

The Sex Workers Rights Act would decriminalize all sex work by adults. Signature-gathering on this initiative has been held up by legal action on the measure’s ballot title that has delayed signature-gathering. Initiative backers have raised more than $361,000 and spent more than $228,000, presumably on legal fees. Aaron Boonshoft has contributed the lion’s share of the campaign’s funds.

Ninety percent of all money raised for initiatives has gone to support measures addressing legislative walkouts, allowing sale of liquor in grocery stores and legalizing sex work.

Two other initiatives dealing respectively with tax rebates and gun safety have also received and spent substantial amounts.  

A total of 56 initiatives have been filed. They would limit campaign contributions, enact ranked-choice voting, require voter approval of road tolls, establish open primaries, ban police use of tear gas, create a citizen redistricting commission and end immunity for state and local officials. Most won’t make it to the ballot in November.

Two measures involving constitutional language were referred to the November ballot by the legislature. One would amend the Oregon Constitution to “ensure that every resident of Oregon has access to cost-effective, clinically appropriate and affordable health care as a fundamental right”. The second measure would remove slavery and involuntary servitude from the Constitution as criminal punishments.

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan rejected on procedural grounds three proposed ballot measures to limit campaign contributions in state elections. Backers of the proposed initiatives challenged Fagan’s decision, but it was upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court. An effort in the short 2022 legislative session to adopt similar political donor restrictions failed to gain traction and pass.