Apathy speaks louder than votes

The debate over Oregon’s “double majority” law concerning property taxes is buzzing again. This is excellent, as it’s a law sorely in need of mending.

The debate over Oregon’s “double majority” law concerning property taxes is buzzing again. This is excellent, as it’s a law sorely in need of mending.

In case you’re not familiar with the double-majority rule, it goes like this. If any ballot measure is put to voters that would increase property taxes, then not only must the measure pass by a majority, but a majority of voters must actually vote in the first place. In other words, if 75 percent of voters vote yes, but only 49 percent of registered voters turn in their ballots, the measure fails.

State tax measures are exempt from the requirement, as are the general elections that occur on even-numbered years in November.

Backers of the double-majority rule often compare the law to the concept of quorum. If a governing body, be it a state legislature or a city council, does not show up in a majority, then the governing body cannot conduct business. Why should voting be any different?

Hoo boy. To start off, we elect governing bodies so they can deal with issues that voters cannot. We cannot have a pure democracy because we cannot involve every voter in every decision the state makes. Instead, we have a representative democracy, so elected officials can dedicate their time to making such decisions. Expecting these officials to show up in a majority is expecting them to do a job that voters are paying for. This is hugely different from expecting voters to vote in a majority.

Also consider that those who do not vote for these measures essentially count for “no” votes. It hands power to those who don’t participate in the democratic process over those who do. In fact, those who have run campaigns against these property tax measures have sometimes encouraged voters to stay home as a more effective way of fighting the measure.

With the League of Oregon Cities finding that 141 out of 1,117 property tax measures failed because of the double-majority rule between 1997 and 2004, it may not be bad advice for the “no” voters (not to mention roughly half of those measures would have passed even if all votes needed to reach a 50 percent turnout were cast as “no” votes).

It’s a pretty scary thing for our democratic system when an apathetic voice is more powerful than an active one.

Supporters of the double-majority law have often cited that before the law’s existence, the government would try to “sneak” property tax raising measures into offseason or special elections when voter turnout is typically low, therefore making it easier to pass measures. The double-majority law, they say, forces these measures onto general election ballots, when voter turnout is higher.

The ideology behind that reasoning is not entirely unsound, but the practicality of the matter is that many of these tax-raising measures have been for emergency cash infusions for school, fire, library and water districts. While these measures are struck down by those who do not vote and are forced to wait for the general election, buildings close and vital state employees are laid off. Furthermore, as these measures get pushed to the general election, they can crowd the ballot, and get lost amid other measures.

So how did this bizarre rule come to be law? Well, we have one of the most loaded names in Oregon politics to thank, none other than Bill Sizemore. In 1996, he wrote the double-majority rule into Measure 47, the primary goal of which was to impose limitations on property tax growth. Voters passed it, 52 percent to 48 percent.

The Legislature rewrote Measure 47 (still including the double-majority rule) and put it on the 1997 ballot as Measure 50, which was again approved by voters, this time 56 percent to 44 percent. A year later, in 1998, the Legislature proposed a repeal of solely the double-majority rule, and voters narrowly rejected it, 51 percent to 49 percent.

Sizemore has used this history to claim that Oregon voters have thrice upheld the double-majority rule. He writes, “It is the taxpayer gift that keeps on giving. Year after year, the Double Majority stands there, knocking down tax increase after tax increase that the voters don’t want.”

But it’s not the voters who don’t want them that are knocking these increases down, it’s the non-voters who don’t care.

To that, Sizemore has this to say: “If you want to increase taxes to pay for something you think government ought to do, you should go out and build enough public support to pass it. If you can’t even get 50 percent of the voters to cast a ballot, it is hard to see that there is any kind of groundswell of public support for increasing the tax you want to increase.”

Fair enough, but on the other side of the coin, if opponents of measures can’t even get 50 percent of those who do vote to vote against such a measure, it’s hard to see that there is any public opposition to stopping them. If opponents cannot stop them by traditional democratic methods and must instead rely on the apathetic to win their case, it gets a little harder to buy the claim that the double-majority rule “stands there, knocking down tax increase after tax increase that the voters don’t want.”

In Salem, the House Rules Committee is considering House Joint Resolution 14, which, instead of repealing the law altogether, would exempt the annual May and November elections from the requirement. Off-cycle elections would still be bound to the double-majority rule, and this seems like a fair compromise.

So we might get to vote on the double-majority law again soon. Judging by the current mood on the subject, it’s almost certain. The House Rules Committee held a hearing on HJR 14 last Monday. Nobody testified against it.