CORVALLIS - Money spent this November trying to influence voting on direct legislation may have a significant impact, although campaigns to defeat these voter-initiated measures are more likely to be effective than those supporting them, a study suggests.
Voter approval of ballot measures usually declines over time as more information about the consequences of each initiative becomes available, according to an Oregon State University researcher.
The millions of dollars that likely will be forked out opposing the 16 voter-initiated measures on Oregon ballots this fall may be money well spent.
"It's easier to create doubt about legislation than it is to sell people on something," said Susan Banducci, an assistant professor of political science at OSU. "And when you have doubt, the status quo seems preferable to the unknown."
Banducci has been studying patterns of voting in states with direct legislation, especially Oregon and California. Oregon, she said, has a love-hate relationship with its initiative process. Direct legislation fits the state's independent, maverick self-image, though there are growing concerns among some of the population that the process has gotten out of hand.
Foes of voter-initiated legislation say it is too easy to get something on the ballot, much of the legislation is poorly crafted, and there are too many measures for voters to fully understand.
"Some of my colleagues disagree, but I don't think there are too many initiatives," Banducci said. "My concern is with their content because they increasingly are limiting government's ability to function. And some are so costly, they restrict the legislature's ability to budget rationally."
Banducci said most voters have enough information on ballot measures to make a decision, whether they use partisan politics, news reporting, advertising, or advocacy by special interest groups to help them reach that decision.
"A lot of voters base their decision on who is for something and who is against it," Banducci said. "And that can be a very efficient way to make sure you vote in accordance with your underlying values."
Banducci said some citizen advisory groups and legislators are studying reforms to Oregon's direct legislation process. One possibility is to forward qualifying initiatives to the legislature, which can then enact the statute or put it on the ballot with an alternative.
Another option, she said, is to continue putting voter-initiated measures on the ballot, but offer alternative measures crafted by legislators.
In other words, give the people a choice.
"One problem with voter-initiated measures is that, even though they undergo a general review, many turn out to be unconstitutional or at least poorly written," said Banducci. "Voters often don't find out the real cost of a measure until years later."
One of the reforms Banducci recommends is for each initiative to include a cost estimate and the proposed source of revenue to pay for it.
The process of getting something on the ballot and waging a campaign can also be costly. Oregon spends about 42 cents per voter on every measure that qualifies for the ballot. In comparison, California spends 18 cents per voter.
"Much of that is a function of population," Banducci pointed out. However, her research shows that Oregon is ranked first in the nation for the total number of measures qualifying for the ballot over the years.
And that trend shows no sign of letting up. Paid signature gatherers, electronic networks of information, and a growing knowledge about how to use the system have made Oregon's initiative process more popular than ever.
"There seems to be a small group of people who have the money and, more importantly, know how to work the process, behind a lot of ballot measures," Banducci said. "There is some criticism that special interests are really driving the initiative process.
"But they've always been involved," she added. "Everyone has special interests. It's more a question of money, access and knowledge."