Think before you sign

Here we go again.

Activist groups are already busy collecting signatures on a variety of ballot initiatives in hopes of qualifying them for the November 2012 election. Among the measures are duplicates of initiatives voters rejected in the past, multiple times in some cases.

Proponents of the measures have until next July to collect enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. Statutory measures — those that enact or change laws — require 87,213 valid signatures from registered voters. Constitutional measures — those that would amend the Oregon Constitution — require 116,284 signatures.

In all, nearly two dozen initiatives have been filed. Only a handful have been approved to circulate, but that number is sure to grow between now and next year.

Among the initiatives that could show up on the ballot are measures to legalize and tax marijuana, overturn the voter-approved ban on hunting cougars with hounds, bar government agencies from collecting union political contributions through payroll deduction, ban studded tires, eliminate the inheritance tax and outlaw all abortions.

The ability to directly enact laws through popular vote is a cherished freedom in Oregon, one that does not exist in all states. This state has a long history of enacting landmark laws through the initiative process.

Oregon voters also have passed laws that required the Legislature to step in and fix them after the fact. The weakness of the initiative system is that it sidesteps the more painstaking process of enacting laws in the Legislature.

Bills introduced in Salem are examined in committee hearings, debated and amended, often repeatedly, before final votes are taken in both houses of the Legislature. In contrast, initiatives are drafted by their supporters and presented to voters once, for an up-or-down vote.

The more complex a measure is, the greater the danger of unintended consequences from poorly drafted language.

The ability to directly enact laws gives voters as much power as legislators. But along with that power comes significant responsibility.

The best protection against ill-advised or badly written initiatives is to keep them off the ballot by denying them enough signatures to qualify. When a signature gatherer asks for your signature, read the text of the measure and make sure you understand it before signing. If you're not sure exactly what the measure would do, don't sign the petition.

Oregonians can be proud of reforms enacted in recent years, some by initiative, to prevent fraudulent or misleading signature gathering operations. Among other things, Oregon law requires signature gatherers to register with the state, prohibits paying them per signature, and bars persons who have been convicted of fraud from serving as signature gatherers.

The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a national nonprofit organization, recently issued a report ranking Oregon best among the 24 states that allow initiatives for the integrity and transparency of its initiative process.

But even the best of safeguards go only so far. Ultimately, it's the responsibility of all voters to understand what they are signing.

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