Buying GMO Voters

Oregon is one of twenty-three states with an initiative process. Anyone can write a new law in Oregon, collect enough signatures and put it to the voters to vote on. Oregon voters decided seven of these in 2012. We have voted on measures as diverse as gay marriage, tax limitations, criminal penalties and union rights.

Next month, residents of our two local counties will vote on whether to ban
GMO crops within our boundaries. Already, opponents have donated $812,910 to ensure its defeat.  In 2002, the GMO industry spent $5.5 million to defeat a statewide initiative requiring labeling of foods containing GMOs. In response, 70% of Oregonians voted not to know what was in their groceries.

A little history of money and Oregon ballot initiatives seems warranted.

In 1984, a Georgia company that manufactures equipment and supplies for lotteries wrote initiative measures establishing the first state lotteries in Oregon and California. The company included language that limited the lottery to the types of products it produced exclusively, thus ensuring its own singular profit should the measures pass. It did pass with 66% of Oregonians voting in favor.

In 1992, the AAA successfully placed an initiative on the Oregon ballot banning triple-trailer trucks on Oregon highways. Oregon is
one of only ten states that allow the vehicles referred to as "road trains" elsewhere. Representing Oregon motorists, AAA initiated the measure at the request of its members. Safety was the primary motivator. The trucking industry spent millions on ads insisting these trucks were super-safe, citing state accident reports that did not distinguish the number of trailers on a truck. Hence, since no accident reports mentioned triple trailers, the ads asserted that no accidents had happened. Oregon voters were persuaded and 61% voted to defeat the measure.

Southern Oregon is being barraged with ads now claiming that enforcement of the local anti-GMO ordinances will bankrupt county governments and hurt public safety (by diverting police from crime). The ads claim to be supported by small farmers in our two counties even though 99% of the money comes from outside of Oregon, half from just three corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont).

Two trends matter in whether or not Southern Oregonians will bend to the will of the out-of-state defenders of GMO agriculture. 

  1. Oregonians are cynical of ballot measures in general. There have been 59 statewide measures at general elections in the past 15 years. 73% of these were defeated. 
  2. Many voters still do not understand the first basic concept of the initiative
    process: Voting no means keeping the status quo while a yes vote means accepting the change. Over the years, I've explained this perhaps a hundred times, nearly always to voters who insist "yes, but some are tricky and that isn't always true."
  3. Negative ads work. Will voters who today seem inclined to vote against GMOs be persuaded by the ads?
 The outcome is still to be determined. Add to the debate the entry of the Citizens' Initiative Review process this spring. A bipartisan panel of citizens and experts will review Jackson County's measure 15-119 and publish its findings, adding a serious analytical component to the more visible propaganda onslaught.  Unfortunately though, those findings will come too late to be a part of the much-used Voters' Pamphlet for the May election.

I'm pessimistic but also troubled enough by the entry of big money in my little rural counties to do what I can do. How about you?

See also: Hobby Politics