by The Oregonian Editorial Board

Politics is rarely pure and simple. Senate Bill 761, however, is an exception. It is purely and simply an attempt to hobble Oregon’s vaunted initiative process.

The bill – which has no legislator listed as its chief sponsor ­­– would restrict a common method through which Oregonians can collect the minimum number of voter signatures to support putting an initiative or referendum on the ballot. Under the bill, initiative supporters could no longer hand out copies of electronic signature sheets to Oregonians to sign and submit. Instead, voters would have to print their own forms or personally ask someone to print one for them. And each signature sheet must include the complete text of the proposed measure ­­– a requirement that could add dozens of printed pages and related costs to a simple signature submission.

The end result? By discouraging voters from participating, it will become harder for Oregonians to enact their own legislation or overturn bills passed by elected officials. Legislators would keep tight control over what becomes law – and what remains law. And the bill would deeply undercut Oregon’s cherished reputation for encouraging direct democracy.

That’s not how supporters describe it, of course. Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that the bill is about “quality control.” E-sheets were originally meant to let people in rural areas submit signatures in support of qualifying an initiative for the ballot, since they would be less likely to encounter a signature gatherer in person.

But advocates may be distributing the sheets without making a copy of the actual measure available, she said, leading to people submitting signature sheets without knowing what the proposed initiative is about. Requiring voters to personally download and print a signature sheet with the full measure will ensure they know what they are doing, she contends. Although the bill has received near unanimous opposition from the public, the Senate Rules Committee, which Burdick chairs, passed the bill on a 3-2 party line vote.

The words “quality control,” particularly in the context of new requirements for voter participation, should immediately raise concerns. While communities fare better when people are engaged and well-informed, legislators must have a clear, compelling reason before setting up any kind of obstacle for people to engage in basic acts of democracy. This, however, isn’t the case. Instead, SB 761 smacks of the same voter suppression tactics that Republican legislators in other states have pursued.

There’s no actual, documented problem to begin with. In recent reviews, the validity rate of signatures submitted on e-sheets is higher than the rate of those collected by signature gatherers in person, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office. And Burdick and the caucus administrator collectively cited two anecdotal examples in which someone may have been distributing e-sheets without providing a copy of the measure. Neither have resulted in a formal complaint.

This “theoretical fraud concern,” as the League of Women Voters of Oregon put it, is no reason to impose a new requirement that is “reminiscent of poll taxes.” Some Oregonians don’t have easy access to printing a signature sheet and it’s not without costs, the organization’s president, Norman Turrill noted in a May letter to legislators.

Especially considering that some measures can be many pages long, campaign finance reform and Measure 47 architect Dan Meek pointed out. Measure 47, which not only qualified for the ballot but passed in 2007, spans 19 pages. How many Oregonians would have willingly printed out and sent a 19-page measure plus signature page?

The urgency for this initiative suppressant may well be a local business group’s ongoing efforts to refer the newly passed corporate taxes in the Student Success Act to voters. While legislators are understandably protective of the law, which finally delivers a stable funding source to Oregon’s struggling K-12 schools, this isn’t the way to do it.

Rather than rig the system, legislators and leaders can ­­– and must – make the case to voters that this tax is fair, necessary and justified. They can show how this money is vital for providing the educational investments and mental health supports for students that Oregonians across the state have called for. And they can explain that failing to take this step will only translate into a grimmer future for all.

But if legislators instead abuse their power to manipulate the system and cut out voters, it will only increase people’s mistrust of the political establishment. Senate Democrats, don’t mistake your supermajority for a coronation. Join Republicans in voting this down and show your faith in the people who put you there.