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Recall Wheeler Campaign Makes Last-Ditch Legal Effort to Stay Afloat

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by Alex Zielinski

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Total Recall campaign

The campaign to recall Mayor Ted Wheeler is making a last-ditch legal effort to qualify for a citywide recall election.

With only 20,000 signatures amassed since the campaign’s July start, it’s clear that the Total Recall PAC will not collect the 47,788 signatures needed to qualify for a citywide election by its October 6 deadline. Instead of surrendering the effort, the campaign has filed a federal lawsuit against the city for not allowing an extension to the signature gathering deadline. The group argues that, due to the community gathering limits COVID-19 has placed on their ability to collect signatures—and an unreasonably hot summer—their group should be allowed more than the 90 days permitted by state law.

“We believe that the state constitution is clear,” said Juan Chavez, a civil rights attorney representing Total Recall PAC, in a press release announcing the lawsuit. “Recalls are a right afforded citizens and the legislature may not put onerous restrictions on that right—especially in the middle of a pandemic.”

The lawsuit comes after Total Recall PAC treasurer Seth Woolley sent a letter on September 22 to City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, who oversees the city’s elections office, asking her for a deadline extension. Woolley received a response from Elections Officer Louise Hansen, who denied this request. Total Recall PAC names both Hull Caballero and Hansen as defendants in the lawsuit, accusing them of violating the PAC’s civil rights by not allowing them additional time to collect signatures.

While Oregon law enshrines a 90-day signature gathering deadline for recall petitions in the state, this timeline is not written into the Oregon Constitution. The lawsuit argues that this 90-day deadline “is void as applied under the First Amendment because of the great burden of obtaining adequate recall petition signatures, in only 90 days, during a public health emergency and global pandemic, during historic heat conditions and during a historic economic contraction that inhibits political contributions such as those that
would enable swift petition signature gathering.”

Not all local campaigns that require signature-gathering have fared poorly during the pandemic. In summer 2020, a campaign to bring universal preschool to Multnomah County far surpassed its signature collection requirements, landing it on a November 2020 ballot.

The lawsuit points to courts in several other states, including Nevada, Michigan, and Arkansas, which tweaked signature-gathering requirements for campaigns due to the COVID pandemic.

If the city doesn’t allow for an extension, the lawsuit claims Total Recall PAC will suffer “irreparable harm,” as the group will be prevented from engaging in constitutionally protected speech.

“In addition,” the suit reads, “[Total Recall PAC] will be unable to place before the voters an option to recall a
mayor who is substantially unpopular.”

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