A coalition of good government groups is asking the Oregon Supreme Court to reconsider a decision that would prevent voters from deciding in November whether the state should limit money in politics.
The court on Friday denied a request by supporters of three proposed ballot initiatives to overturn a decision by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan that would block the initiatives from appearing on the November ballot. Petitioner Jason Kafoury, a Portland attorney who co-founded Honest Elections Oregon, described a new legal filing asking the court to reconsider their case as a “Hail Mary.”
Kafoury, League of Women Voters president Rebecca Gladstone, and James Ofsink, president of advocacy group Portland Forward, spearheaded three slightly different ballot initiatives that would limit the amount of money individuals, unions and election committees political action could give to candidates or political action committees. The initiatives would also create a new public funding system and require all political ads to include disclaimers about who paid for them. They planned to send one to the polls after determining by poll which was most popular with voters.
Fagan said in February that none of the proposed measures met a technical requirement set out in a 2004 court ruling that requires petitioners to include the full text of the state law they seek to change.
In a 42-page appeal filed shortly before midnight Wednesday, the plaintiffs made several arguments why the court should take their case.
First, Oregonians who want to change the law through the citizens’ initiative process need clarity on the “full text” requirement, they argued. Second, the normal court process takes months or years and would prohibit any measure from making it to the polls. And finally, the court agreed to hear a similar case involving a gubernatorial candidate who needed a quick court decision on whether he could be on the ballot.
Good government groups have long pushed for campaign finance reform in Oregon, one of only five states that has no limit on the amount of money people or groups can donate to candidates.
Voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2020 that would allow state and local governments to set contribution and spending limits, but efforts by some state lawmakers to enact laws have been thwarted. Unions, which overwhelmingly support Democrats, and business groups are resisting attempts to limit their influence in the election.
All three initiatives aimed to encourage voters to impose limits on campaign finance. But in their latest legal filing, the petitioners said the issues raised by Fagan’s decision to reject their bills have implications that go well beyond campaign finance initiatives.
Fagan interpreted the requirement that petitions include the “full text” of state law that would be amended by the initiative differently from previous secretaries of state, they wrote.
“The future proponents of the initiative have no guidance as to how the ‘full text’ requirement should be drafted,” the legal filing reads. “Such uncertainty chills the discourse of all who wish to participate.”
Fagan rejected the petitions in part because they failed to print a version of the state law that went into effect Jan. 1, several weeks after the three filed their petitions. This interpretation would allow lawmakers to sabotage ballot initiatives by enacting minor changes to sections of state law affected by a proposed ballot measure, they argue.
When the court initially refused to take up the case, the judges said Gladstone, Kafoury and Ofsink could have avoided any problems by filing their claim sooner. In their appeal, they noted that the court took a different approach when former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof asked the court to order Fagan to let him run for governor.
Kristof filed as a Democrat on Dec. 20, weeks after Gladstone, Kafoury and Ofsink filed their petition. Fagan informed him Jan. 6 that he was not meeting a constitutional requirement that gubernatorial candidates must live in Oregon for three years before the general election.
Kristof quickly asked the Supreme Court to overturn Fagan. Both Kristof and Fagan urged the court to rule on the case quickly, noting that they only had two months until nominations were due. The court ultimately ruled that Kristof did not meet the residency requirements on February 17.
Gladstone, Kafoury and Ofsink argue that their claim for relief from the court is just as valid as Kristof’s.
Fagan will have the chance to respond to the final legal filing by 11:59 p.m. this Thursday, and the Supreme Court will decide to revisit the case at some point thereafter. In the meantime, the petitioners plan to begin preparing a potential measure for the 2024 ballot and work with lawmakers to pass campaign finance limits in the 2023 legislative session.