Ep. 1 – Oregonians, Not Politicians

Chief Petitioner and Campaign Chair of Oregon’s People Not Politicians Norman Turrill joins Matt to discuss his organization’s efforts to qualify an initiative for the November ballot.

Interview Transcript:

MATT DUNDAS (MD): Sir, politicians are people too. Aren’t politicians people too?

NORMAN TURRILL (NT): I consider myself a politician, so it’s not a bad thing in my mind. It’s a necessary part of our political system to have people to help lead us and we happen to call them politicians.

MD: Okay, well then let’s ask it another way, what is this petition all about? What will you accomplish with your petition drive?

NT: The petition is to change the way Oregon is redistricted. Currently the legislature has the responsibility and it has a tendency to deal with its own interests more than the interests of the voters, and to have a conflict of interest in the process because every incumbent has an interest in their being re-elected and having their party continue in power. And so if that process gets too far afield we call it gerrymandering.

MD: Now this seems so obvious and so straightforward, a person must scratch their head and say, “Well how did this even happen in the first place?” This seems like, the last people you’d want drawing the legislative districts are the legislators.

NT: That’s right. So it got started actually at the beginning of the country’s founding. 

MD: So many mistakes! Just one after the next with those guys. That bunch! Sorry. What did they do? What was it?

NT: Well, when the Constitution was written for each state, they wrote it into the Constitution how this happens, and, you know, 100 or 200 years ago they didn’t think of it quite in the same terms. They expected them to go for their own interest, I guess. And Congress, when it got involved, the United States Constitution guaranteed to each state the way to do its own districts and ways of electing its officials. And the United States Constitution can’t say much about that.

MD: It’s state’s rights, and Oregon is making a unilateral move here. How do you compare? How does Oregon compare to – cause I should say, you’re in Oregon, not sure I’ve said that yet – you’re based in Portland, is that right?

NT: That’s right, Portland, Oregon.

MD: My goodness. Have you been taken off the streets and patted down by unmarked police officers yet? What’s happening in your town?

NT: That protest is still going on. It’s going on for over 60 days now.

MD: That’s incredible.

NT: Remarkably enough, the rest of Portland is doing just fine. The protests and what you’ve heard about in the news is actually confined to about two or three blocks downtown, and the rest of the city is relatively unaffected. We occasionally see people standing on corners with “Black Lives Don’t Matter” signs, but that’s about it.

MD: Oh really?

NT: Yeah.

MD: Not an “All Lives Matter” sign, not a “Black Lives Matter” sign, a “Black Lives Don’t Matter” sign? Is that what you just said?

NT: No, I said “Black Lives Matter.”

MD: Oh I’m – okay, I’m sorry. I’m glad we clarified that! So while we’re on that topic though – I wanted to come back to how you compare to other states but since we’ve already gone for the elephant in the room, you’re in Portland, Oregon – has this event, have these protests changed your campaign at all?

NT: No, not the protests. What has changed our campaign is the pandemic. We drafted our initiative over about a two year period, at long length, as a negotiation within the coalition members. And we submitted it to the Secretary of State for filing last November, and there’s a long process by which initiatives are given ballot titles and it wasn’t until April when we were actually given permission to collect signatures on the petitions that they specified.

MD: Oh, goodness, not until the pandemic had already begun?

NT: Yes. And so we were well into the pandemic, and at that point we decided we needed to do something else, especially League members, who are generally elderly. 60 and above.

MD: League members, League of Women Voters.

NT: Out on the streets during a pandemic and collecting signatures. And so we decided to do something else, and that’s when we pivoted to a different strategy.

MD: And what is that strategy?

NT: The strategy was to do direct mailing to registered voters in Oregon, and we put together the funding and mailing to half a million registered voter households in Oregon, which represent 1.1 million voters in the state. And we mailed them all the petition and instructions on how to return it to us by mail and that was actually quite successful in getting a response. And it was remarkable. A normal direct mail advertising gets like half a percent response rate. We got about six percent response rate in that mailing.

MD: Wow. Twelve times the normal response. Everybody’s just sitting around watching Netflix.

NT: You know, they were bored enough apparently they had time to look at our petition.

MD: Yeah.

NT: However, it was not enough to qualify for the ballot. We came up to our deadline of July 2, we had about 64,000 – 68,000 – signatures at that point. And we tried to submit them to the Secretary of State and they refused to accept them because they weren’t enough to qualify.

MD: What’s the number you need?

NT: We needed 150,000.

MD: Oh that’s much bigger.

NT: For a constitutional amendment. So at that point we decided to sue the Secretary of State through the federal courts.

MD: Yes, I saw that. That’s great.

NT: This is a fascinating story and it’s unprecedented first that we would a campaign through a mailing like this, for an initiative. And secondly it’s unprecedented to have a pandemic at the same time. And so we appealed to the federal court and they decided in our favor after a long story. And it essentially said that the process of getting on the ballot is a demonstration of voter interest in the subject and that given the circumstances that we had in fact demonstrated voter interest sufficiently in the initiative and so it should be placed on the ballot. He gave the Secretary of State two choices: either put it on the ballot directly or give us a new deadline of August 17 and a smaller threshold which they said was 58 thousand and some signatures, to be validated. Valid signatures.

MD: Valid signatures. So you’d handed in 64 thousand but they hadn’t been validated.

NT: That’s right.

MD: And that can be a pretty risky – like, the percentage of signatures that are valid especially when you’re going door-to-door or maybe on a streetcorner – I’d expect maybe you had a better than average validation rate when it’s a mailing.

NT: Well that’s exactly what happened. Our validation rate when we got down to it was something like 97%.

MD: 97%?!

NT: Yeah, unheard of validation rate for an initiative.

MD: That is unheard of.

NT: And as a consequence, together with some other signatures that we had submitted weekly, we were now qualified according to the lawsuit judgment to be on the ballot.

MD: Well, congratulations, that’s huge.

NT: It is huge.

MD: You can’t win without that step.

NT: However, the leaders of our state don’t agree on what happened and there are different political parties. The Secretary of State is a Republican and the other state officers are Democrats. And the Democratic Attorney General appealed the decision of the district court to the 9th Circuit court and that’s still pending. And we have a hearing next week, August 13, to see what happens with the appeal.

MD: So, a Democrat said no?

NT: That’s right.

MD: Cause you would assume, if you were just a layman you might assume, “Oh, Republicans are more corrupt than Democrats, they’re going to be the ones to try to stop this but in this instance an individual who’s a Democrat, so this is really about power, isn’t it?

NT: That’s right. So this is about the powers that be in Oregon who are the Democrats, who are dominant here, and they’re fighting tooth and nail to prevent us from getting on the ballot.

MD: What’s their argument?

NT: Their argument is that we’re trying to amend the Constitution and that the state should have complete power over how the Constitution is amended. And our argument is something different, it’s that because the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment, gives us the right to petition our government and we were denied that right because of the governor’s lockdown provisions of the pandemic, and that we should be permitted to get on the ballot in spite of the actual requirements. We’ve demonstrated enough interest already that we should be on the ballot.

MD: So their argument is that the initiative drive is an improper mechanism to change the Constitution? That even if you’d gotten the right number of signatures they’d be opposed to a ballot initiative?

NT: No, they’re saying that since we didn’t get enough signatures to qualify as a Constitutional amendment by initiative that we should not be permitted to go to the ballot.

MD: Now do you suspect that if you do end up getting on the ballot one way or the other, let’s say the judge says – the Ninth Circuit says, “Naw, they’re okay, they did their diligence”; because you’re saying, I think I heard you right, which is that the judge basically said the purpose of the petition gathering in the first place is to demonstrate an interest and the fact that you guys had such a higher than average response rate on your mail-in petition drive demonstrated that interest.

NT: That’s correct. And we have no doubt that if we make the ballot the voters will agree with us, and it’s actually the voters, not the initiative, that amends the Constitution. So if the voters don’t agree then the Constitution is not going to be amended, but if they do agree it will be amended. So it’s the voters’ choice, not the initiative process’s choice.

MD: So do you think these same politicians are going to come out and try and defeat the initiative should you qualify it?

NT: Oh sure.

MD: Or do you think they’ll stay on the sidelines cause it’s too positive a – you know – an issue?

NT: Well I would hope that they would give up without a fight but it’s probably not going to happen. They’re protecting their core powers in the state. And their power to redistrict the state essentially lasts for ten years, and if they gerrymander the state it will essentially be setting in stone for up to ten years their control of the state.

MD: Again, it’s just such a head scratcher, why this wouldn’t be the case in all 50 states. How many states have a committee – cause you guys are proposing that there be an apolitical committee–

NT: Commission.

MD: Commission, okay. And that – we could get into a back and forth over how apolitical anybody ever is, but I looked into a little bit and I’d say at first glance it looks legit, it looks like your system that you’re proposing is as good a model as one could probably think of to try to keep politics away – keep money away too, that was a very significant part of the language. But how many states do something like that?

NT: There’s about 19 or 21 states that have some form of commission; now, depending on how you want to count them. There’s only a handful that do it like we’re proposing. One is California. And another is Arizona, and now Colorado and Michigan. In the last election there was actually five that had ballot measures about redistricting on the states and in all five states the voters passed those initiatives. So that’s one reason why I think if this gets on the ballot the voters will readily agree to amend the Constitution.

MD: And what percentage do you need to get a “yes” passed? Is it just 50.1?

NT: 50%.

MD: Wow.

NT: Fifty plus one.

MD: Fifty plus one, amazing. To change the Constitution. I guess that’s why the high signature threshold.

NT: Yes, and Oregon’s one of the few states where you can amend the Constitution by initiative. Most states don’t permit that. Many states have initiative process but it’s about passing statutes. New laws.

MD: Well if ever there was a situation where almost by definition you’d need to go straight to the voters. Cause I can think of some arguments against the initiative process. I’ve worked on initiative drives and overall I’m in favor, but I can certainly see some arguments against it. Voters can be swayed by big moneyed interests. Campaign ads on TV. They could do something dumb that politicians would know better than doing. But in this instance it really seems so clear that the politicians’ interest is corrupt, or corruptable.

[Commercial break]

NT: The legislature, what it does, it usually creates safes districts for the incumbents or the incumbent part – [phone rings] excuse me – and when those safe districts are created the voters have very little ability to change their representation. So having a commission that is more non-partisan or at least multi-partisan in the process creating districts that are in the interests of the voters. And also, one of the criteria is that they be competitive wherever possible. And that way the voters are better able to change their representation from the current leaders that they have elected before. And so that way the voters win instead of the incumbents.

MD: Which on the surface certainly seems like the way it ought to be, and when you look at the maps all over the country – and this has been an issue that has come up a lot, I think since the 2010 census, when, suddenly, it was the Republican strategy. My recollection – it’s been 10 years – but my recollection was that it suddenly dawned on everybody, “Oh, look what the Republicans have been doing for 30 years, they’ve been taking over statehouses so they can be in charge in 2010 when the census comes and then they get to redistrict everything and then suddenly you’ve got the craziest looking districts carved out to maximize Republicans in Congress.

NT: Well it’s not the Republicans that do this always. It’s both parties. And if you look at what the Democrats did in Maryland it’s just the opposite situation, and it’s about incumbency and party power as to who’s wielding this sledgehammer. And in our estimation, our opponents are trying to make this a political issue whereas we maintain that it’s a process issue that actually affects all political parties the same. And in the long run we compare it to a double-edged sword that can be used with both edges, and can be – either Democrats or Republicans can be wielding that sword. And often they do. And in the history of Oregon there’s examples of both Democrats and Republicans trying to gerrymander the state.

MD: No, you’re absolutely right. It’s true. I say Republicans, but the truth is they just thought of it and made it their national strategy. And then they pulled off a thing that the Democrats probably their first response was, “Egh, why didn’t we think of that?”

NT: That’s right.

MD: “We could’ve been the ones pulling that off.” So whoever’s in power is the one to watch out for. That’s interesting. Now, have you worked on campaigns before?

NT: I’ve not worked so much on candidate campaigns but I have worked on initiatives before. And it’s always been interesting. And it’s always something of an emotional rollercoaster as well, especially as we go through court cases and appeals. One thing I didn’t mention is that the Attorney General didn’t get its satisfaction in the court of appeals, 9th circuit, so they’ve also appealed to the United States Supreme Court now for a stay, and we’re waiting to see what will happen with that as well.

MD: Oh interesting, so while they wait for the Ninth Circuit they want the Supreme Court to jump in and stay the whole thing.

NT: Yes. And if that happens we’re done probably. If they agree with us and let the circuit court do its business and make a decision then I think we’ll be on the ballot. We’ll see what happens in both courts.

MD: When do the ballots get printed? Like, when’s the last day that you could be on the ballot?

NT: That’s a good question, it’s later in August when ballots have to start going out, especially to overseas voters and so we don’t have a lot of time to argue about this.

MD: Right. Well, August 8th was on your website, “sign the petition by August 8th.” That’s the day I intend to publish this interview on our podcast, is that day significant to any Oregonians that might be listening and what should they do?

NT: Well they should mail back the petitions that we’ve now mailed to – we’ve actually mailed a whole batch out to 150,000 registered voters households. And they should mail those back as soon as they can. At least by August 8th or maybe a couple days later. But still, it has to be enough time for the mail to get to Salem, Oregon, which is where we have to turn them into the Secretary of State.

MD: Now, going after people through the mail, that’s a, well, the coronavirus is novel, so’s that idea.

NT: Unprecedented.

MD: That’s right. I’m impressed – one of the things about the pandemic is that it’s showing everybody a different way to do things. And some of those ways will certainly fall away when we’re finally through this, assuming we ever get through it, and some of those new ways of doing things may catch on, and I’m curious to know if you can tell me about the economics of the difference between paying people, you know, anywhere from a quarter to five dollars per signature to go out into the communities and gather these signatures, which I’ve been a part of many times, it’s a very cumbersome and very expensive proposition. Here you are, you’re cornered, you have really one major tactic, also not cheap – but is it cheaper per signature? Are you able to divulge?

NT: Well in Oregon, we can’t pay by the signature. We have to pay the petitioners by the hour when do, and it actually is more expensive to pay petitioners to go out on the streets. But the point is that there aren’t people on the streets, or at least weren’t initially, to be petitioned. And the petitioners would themselves be in danger of their health, so it’s a two-way argument that we decided not to do that. In any case, it was terrifically expensive to do this direct mailing as well, so it was probably more expensive to do street petitioning but we took the only choice we could with the money we had, and there was a lot of people who would’ve give us money because they said, “Oh naw, yeah, you’re not going to make it.” Well, those people were in fact somewhat right because we didn’t get the number of signatures that we were required to but it looks like we’ll get on the ballot anyway.

MD: That’s phenomenal and I’ve been noticing there’s a trend around the country of initiatives in the situation that you found yourself in, and having to go and ask judges for relief. It would seem that the weirdest thing that’s happened – I like the idea that campaigns are weird – and I would assume that the weirdest thing that’s happened on your campaign, versus previous campaigns you’ve worked on anyway, would have to be Covid, and this whole, mail it out and then go to the judge. But have there been any particular moments that, for an audience of people who may be interested in campaigns but haven’t worked on one, that might encapsulate that weirdness for you from the last few months you’ve been working?

NT: Repeat the question please?

MD: Yeah it’s a strange question. What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened on this campaign?

NT: Weirdest thing? Um. Well in the middle of our campaign to get people to mail back petitions then the Black Lives Matter protests started and that became a competing interest for people. Not everybody was wanting to pay much attention to our initiative campaign, and so they were pulled off onto the other protests. Some of them anyway. So that was weird.

MD: And that’s a good example of how you’re running a campaign and, when you’re on a campaign, in my experience, everything in the world revolves around you, right? So you’re the center of the universe, you’re trying to influence people around you, there’s so much that you can’t control. You can’t control George Floyd and that situation and the aftermath that’s, as you describe, still ongoing. Did you decide to, like, pull back a little bit? Save some resources? Wait a couple weeks on whatever public pushes you were doing?

NT: No, we didn’t really pause much. You know, we had already set in motion the big mailing, and had to continue with that. We started getting thousands of petitions back in the mail and so had to concentrate on processing those and seeing if they signed it in the right place or dated it and so on. There’s certain little niggling details that the Secretary of State will invalidate a signature or sometimes a whole petition because they didn’t do it right. And so we had to look at those and send some back where we could get them cured, as we call it, to validate the signatures. And so that occupied our time a lot. The other thing that was weird about the campaign is that our opponents are just dogged in their hyper-partisanship against us. They will do everything they can to prevent us from getting our signatures first, and then qualifying for the ballot. And we think they’ll do anything to argue against it when we do get on the ballot. So that is phenomenal.

MD: I know, it’s always interesting how an entrenched interest can fight – in some senses they might actually be fighting for their political lives. I mean, if I’m an incumbent, and I know if my district is redrawn the wrong way, I don’t stand a chance, then I’m fight. I’m going to say whatever I think I’ve got to say, like you just suggested that they would. What do you expect their talking points to be if you’re on the ballot, it’s a common sense thing, what are they even going to say? Like, it shouldn’t – a judge put it on the ballot and therefore the process was messed up? Or do they have something more substantive?

NT: Well, they certainly have substantive arguments. The initiative is actually – the text of the initiative is actually pretty long. There’s a lot of details involved in this process, and so they’re picking at some of the details. So part of the process is how to choose the 12-member commission, and one of the details there is that they have to be screened by the Secretary of State’s office for conflicts of interest. And so there’s a long list of thing that will disqualify people who want to be commissioners. People who have volunteered to do that. There are things like being a candidate, or being a political party officer, or being an office holder or family of any of those or being a lobbyist. These are obvious conflicts of interest in the process, yet they pick at that detail and say, “Why shouldn’t everybody be eligible to serve on this commission?” And there’s another qualification that you have to have been a registered voter for at least three years, and they think, “Well, what about new voters and young people and immigrants and are newly registered?” And we say, “Well, that’s a necessary part of the process because we want commissioners who actually know something about the state and something about the politics and geography and demographics of the state.” And so there’s arguments both ways and they want to pick at the detail. The bottom line is that they just don’t like it. It’s not the right petition, it’s not the right time. And so on. There’s just no way to satisfy their arguments because they’re coming at it from a whole different point of view, which is a partisan point of view rather than the nonpartisan process issue view that we have.

MD: Goodness, cause I read – I’ll confess I didn’t read the whole thing, it is a little long, but so long that if I lived in Oregon I wouldn’t read the whole thing – it wasn’t objectionably long. And of course it stank to me of thoughtfulness. And I risk – I keep doing this in the interviews, just gushing about how much I agree and appreciate what you’re doing. But it just wreaked of, “We really sat down, we brought some smart people together, we thought it through,” and here you go and you’re opposition is a very unique one: it’s the legislature. It’s elected officials themselves. And of course they’re poo-pooing it but I’ll bet they’re not offering their own bill that has all the fixes that they’re describing yours needs.

NT: We in fact offered them to pass something in the last two legislative sessions – major sessions – and they’ve just ignored us. Except for some minor details in the process about hearings, they didn’t even want to think about it. We can’t claim, really, to have the best process for redistricting the state because nobody knows what that is, but we can claim that we have a hell of a lot better process than what the legislature does.

MD: It sounds like a better process than what is happening in Oregon and so many other states. And of course this process when it’s done by politicians it erodes so much. There’s so much effect down the road on this, isn’t there? Because you end up with these incumbents who are entrenched in their jobs and they then don’t have to listen so much to the people and the parties go further apart because the districts are safer and safe and then you’ve got people primarying other people because the district becomes so safe that if you’re left wing you’ve got to be really left wing and vice versa. And it ends up coloring everything in politics and so it seems like you guys are on the ground floor of the issue that it would seem that all 50 states need to be attacking in order for America to have any chance of having representatives that truly represent the ideals and values of the constituency. I mean, did I nail that?

NT: You got it. Yeah.