While the 2007 Oregon Legislature is just beginning to pick up steam, already there's one measure introduced that we believe deserves support. It's Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 10, and it would eliminate most of the double majority requirements that plague Oregon election law.
Before we speak to the merits of the measure, let's make one point clear: SJR 10 doesn't itself change the law. Instead, if passed, SJR 10 would call on Oregonians to once again consider the issue at the ballot box. After several years of dealing with the consequences of the double majority, we believe that's an opportunity most Oregonians would welcome.
Here's a quick history lesson. The double majority was the brainchild of anti-taxes, anti-union, pretty much anti-everything Bill Sizemore. (This occurred several years before a jury found Sizemore liable of election-related fraud and racketeering in a civil lawsuit.) The double majority law says that any property tax increase must both be approved by a 50 percent majority of those voting and that at least 50 percent of those registered to vote must do so.
In other words, if there's only a 49 percent turnout, there's no need to even count the ballots. It doesn't matter if 99 percent of those who took the time to vote said "Yes." In essence, every single person in the 51 percent who didn't vote is counted as a "No," and that's not right.
Sizemore and other proponents love to compare the double majority to the concept of a "quorum." If a quorum of a city council isn't seated, they argue, that body can't conduct business. That argument may even sound OK at first blush, but then you have to consider where we live.
Because in 2007, if there's any state in the country where the "quorum concept" doesn't hold water, it's vote-by-mail Oregon. Here, a full 100 percent quorum is reached in every election, because every registered voter receives a ballot and has over two weeks to return it. You don't have to worry about the difficulty of getting out to a polling place if you're handicapped or disabled, you don't need to worry about bad weather or having the flu on Election Day and so on. Every voter is "in the room" once he or she receives their ballot.
Once that ballot is in your hand, it's your responsibility to participate. Indeed, as mentioned, the biggest argument against the double majority is the fact that people who don't vote are in essence counted as "No" votes. That includes people who have moved, people who have died or others who, for whatever reason, aren't off each county's election rolls.
The double majority has a history now, and it's not a good one. We've seen proposed levies for countless fire districts, libraries, water districts and others easily pass a majority of those who voted only to be vetoed by those who didn't. The double majority is a slap in the face at the fundamental tenets of democracy, and again, Oregon's unique vote-by-mail system erases it's proponents biggest sound bite.
Please note SJR 10 doesn't change everything. If you're concerned about jurisdictions trying to "sneak" levies and such in off-cycle elections, that part of the law wouldn't change. Property tax elections would still have to be held on regular primary and general election dates.
Nationally, Oregon has always been seen as a leader, a place where we're willing to take chances and try new ideas. Vote-by-mail was one such idea, and it's been a good one - several states are now in the process of copying our law. The double majority has not been a good idea - and it's OK for us to collectively admit that. At the very least, the concept deserves another round of statewide debate, and that's what SJR 10 would do.
We encourage you to contact your state legislators and urge them to make SJR 10 a priority this session. We need to open the door for a full examination of this important topic once again.
Ken Allen is the Executive Director of Oregon Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents over 27,000 workers in Oregon and over 1.3 million nationally.