Backers of a campaign to repeal an Oregon law that aids undocumented immigrants are taking advantage of new petition rules to make an early start on gathering the signatures they need to qualify for the 2018 ballot.
Cynthia Kendoll, president of Oregonians For Immigration Reform, says her group was unable to make the 2016 ballot with a pair of immigrant-related measures because their signature gathering was held up by lengthy legal fights over the wording of the ballot title.
Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson last month began the process of changing the rules so that initiative campaigns for the first time could gather an unlimited number of signatures before the wording of the ballot title was hashed out.
That seemingly arcane change could have a major impact on initiative campaigns, particularly ones that don't have a lot of money to flood the streets with paid petitioners.
Kendoll said that ballot title challenges "have become more about delaying the initiative process than they are about making certain that we have proper language" for explaining a measure for voters.
A coalition called One Oregon opposes changing the 30-year-old "Sanctuary State" law, which limits local and state police cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The group has also filed a legal appeal with the state Supreme Court challenging the ballot title, which is meant to be a neutral description of the initiative.
Andrea Williams is executive director of Causa, an immigrant rights group, and a leader of the One Oregon coalition.
She said that Kendoll's group has started early enough that it could probably qualify for the ballot even without Richardson's new rules. She said the group filed an appeal to get the most "accurate and clear" ballot title.
Kendoll acknowledged her group is taking some risk by going ahead with signature gathering before waiting for a ballot title.
In particular, several groups have talked about mounting a legal challenge to Richardson's rule change. Ben Unger is the executive director of Our Oregon, a labor-backed coalition group. He said the secretary of state's office should start over on the rules change because it contained some procedural errors. And his group is also looking into whether Richardson actually has the authority to allow initiatives to collect signatures without having a ballot title affixed to the signature sheets.
Oregon law says that petitioners have to gather at least 1,000 signatures before they can get a ballot title. Richardson used that language to say that he could change the rules to allow petitioners to gather as many as signatures as they want until a ballot title is finalized.
If the immigration measure qualifies for the ballot next year, it could attract national attention. A large number of cities and counties around the country — including 15 in Oregon, according to Williams — have "sanctuary" protections for immigrants.
Oregon has the only statewide law, although California legislators are working on a similar measure.
Kendoll said the Oregon law should be overturned so that law enforcement in the state can fully cooperate with immigration officials. She noted the local furor involving the case of Sergio Jose Martinez, accused of attacking two women in Portland last month after being released from custody in Multnomah County last December. Federal officials say they asked the county to hold Martinez, but Sheriff Mike Reese said the agency should have issued a criminal warrant.
Williams said the Oregon sanctuary law improves public safety by encouraging immigrants to cooperate with law enforcement without fear of deportation.
Sponsors of the initiative need to gather 88,184 valid signatures by next July to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.