In Oregon, voter apathy not hard to understand

By Jayson Jacoby February 28, 2014 03:52 pm

I used to write off registered voters who don’t vote as lazy, but my antipathy for their apathy is increasingly being shoved aside by sympathy for their plight.

Three recent examples from Oregon show that sometimes when you win at the ballot box the victory is fleeting.

I’m not referring to cases in which the electorate, fickle group that it is, changes its mind at a subsequent election.

That can be frustrating, to be sure, but it is at least consistent with democratic principles.

I’m much more troubled, though, when voters are in effect betrayed by the very people we elect to represent us.

During the past few years Oregon voters have had their will thwarted, to varying degrees, on three issues:

• Whether to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in the state

• Whether condemned criminals should be executed

• Whether the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages will be defended against legal challenges

Two times, in 2004 and 2010, Oregon voters rejected proposals that would have allowed people to sell medical marijuana to licensed patients in retail outlets.

The margin wasn’t particularly close, either, the last time the matter went to voters. In November 2010 they rejected Measure 74 by 56 percent to 44 percent.

This seems to me an unequivocal statement by voters.

Yet our legislators had about as much respect for that statement as your dad had for your story about how you wrecked his car but it wasn’t really your fault.

Which is to say, they ignored the voters.

Last summer the Legislature passed a bill allowing medical marijuana dispensaries.

Gov. John Kitzhaber dutifully signed it into law, with a few strokes of his pen rendering the opinions of 758,000 of his constituents null and void (that being the number of voters who said no to Measure 74).

Not that the governor’s acquiescence ought to have surprised anyone.

Kitzhaber is quite capable of disenfranchising voters without any help from the Legislature.

In November 2011 Kitzhaber announced that he would not allow any inmates in Oregon’s state penitentiary to be executed while he’s in office.

Unlike the medical marijuana dispensary issue, Oregonians have not had a chance recently to either reaffirm or renounce their decision in 1984 to allow capital punishment.

(That measure, by the way, passed by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent.)

Nor have we had much reason to reconsider.

Since 1984, after all, Oregon has executed just two convicted murderers, both of whom admitted their guilt and waived their right to any appeals beyond those the law requires.

Kitzhaber, when he said he would block executions, branded Oregon’s death penalty system as “inequitable,” “broken” and “compromised.”

The governor hasn’t offered any evidence that in my view justifies his use of those three adjectives.

Moreover, no one else, including the many earnest people who disdain capital punishment, has put a measure on the ballot asking voters to decide whether they still endorse capital punishment.

But it seems that for Kitzhaber the voters are merely an annoyance, or at least they’re not as important as his own sense of what’s “morally wrong,” the phrase he used in 2011 to explain why he won’t allow executions.

The most recent example of an elected official dismissing the opinions of a majority of her constituents happened just this month, when state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum decided the state would not defend in federal court Oregon’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages.

In 2004 Oregon voters, with 56.7 percent in favor, approved Measure 36, which amended the state’s Constitution to define marriage as “between one man and one woman.”

I opposed Measure 36.

I think gay couples should be allowed to get married, and that they’re entitled to all the legal protections and privileges afforded heterosexual couples.

But here’s the thing: My side lost the election.

And that’s where we’re supposed to decide things in this country.

A legal challenge to Measure 36 is scheduled to be heard in federal court this year.

Based on judges’ decisions in other states where voters have banned same-sex marriages, Oregon’s ban likely will be tossed out on the grounds that it violates the U.S. Constitution.

I hope that happens.

But it hasn’t happened yet, and until it does, Rosenblum should do her job, which is to defend the Constitution of the state whose voters elected her and pay her $82,200 annual salary.

Notwithstanding that this involves a civil rather than a criminal matter, Rosenblum’s decision is akin to a lawyer who refuses to represent a client he believes to be guilty.

A criminal defendant is of course entitled to representation. If one lawyer resigns, the government must appoint a replacement.

I think Oregon voters deserve the same level of legal consideration.

Rosenblum used to be a judge, someone who had the authority to rule against voters.

But she lost that authority when she swapped the bench for a state office. 

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.