updated 7/15/2008 7:20:53 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:20:53

Oregon is an experimental commonwealth and laboratory of reform on the Pacific Rim, a maker of national trends. It is far removed from where most Americans live, but closer in touch with the rest of America than it sometimes appears: Within minutes after a tree branch brushed a power line in Oregon in August 1996, the entire western power grid shut down all the way from the Canadian border to San Diego, where the Republican National Convention was opening two days later. Oregon has led the nation with bike trails and Nike sneakers, light rail trams and Pendleton shirts, with assisted suicide and mail-in ballots. Oregon is an affluent high-tech civilization where one can still see much the same land and water—and rain—that Lewis and Clark saw in 1805 when they came down the Columbia River gorge, past the Willamette River and what is now Portland, to the vast Pacific Ocean.

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This Oregon was settled by Americans when John Jacob Astor set up his fur trading post at Astoria in 1811 and when New England Yankees in the 1840s rode the Oregon Trail and floated down the Columbia to the well-watered Willamette Valley. In this remote land, nearly 2,000 miles from the Mississippi River frontier and 700 miles from the small Mexican settlements in California, they built an orderly, productive society—a kind of western New England. It grew steadily over the years, with a few booms—when timber, until very recently its first industry, surged in 1900–10, during the war and after in the 1940s, and in the 1970s when home building skyrocketed and Oregon’s natural environment began to be widely appreciated.

Newcomers find a state that has a distinctive culture. Founded by New England Yankees accustomed to town meeting government, Oregonians nearly a century ago pioneered in bringing the people closer to government: This was the first state to pass initiative and referendum, recall of elected officials, and election of U.S. senators by popular vote. It was also the first state to institute Labor Day, workmen’s compensation and the eight-hour workday for women. In recent decades Oregon, founded by New England churchmen, has become America’s most unchurched state, with the lowest rate of church membership, with large numbers of believers in astrology and New Age spiritualism; in the 2004 exit poll 28% of voters said they had no religion. To the innovations of this cultural left, the public voices of Oregon’s big institutions, like those of New England, have been friendly. Oregon over the last two generations produced the first bottle-deposit law, decriminalized medical marijuana, legalized most abortions before Roe v. Wade and backed limits on development and use of property. It is one of two states that ban self-service gas (the other is New Jersey). It has had more ballot propositions than any other state—340 initiatives filed by citizens between 1902 and 2006, some 400 bills referred by the legislature; the November 2000 ballot had no less than 26 initiatives, more than any state since North Dakota in 1932, and the voters’ guide ran 376 pages.

Oregon’s population rose 26% between 1990 and 2004, the 11th fastest among the states, but not evenly. In the 1990s it thronged with newcomers in Portland’s postmodern skyscrapers and high-tech offices in Silicon Forest to the west, and in the smaller cities and towns of the green Willamette Valley. More recently the fastest growth has been east of the Cascades, around Bend; land use restrictions have limited growth in Portland and its suburbs. Almost half of Oregon’s population increase in 2000–05 was accounted for by Hispanics, who now account for 10% of the state’s population, far more than blacks (2%), American Indians (1%) or Asians (3%). But lumber production was sharply curtailed in the 1990s (though Oregon is still number one in Christmas trees), and the high-tech bust of 2000–03 hit Oregon hard. Unemployment was the highest of any state, peaking at 8.1% in February 2002. State government revenues, heavily dependent on the income tax (Oregon has no sales tax) fell sharply, and political controversy ensued. In January 2003 voters rejected by a 54%-46% margin Measure 28, favored by retiring Governor John Kitzhaber and his newly elected successor Ted Kulongoski, which would have raised income taxes for three years. Kulongoski nonetheless got Democrats and moderate Republicans in the legislature to pass an $800 million tax increase later in the year. Anti-tax groups immediately sent out petitions, and the new taxes were submitted to the voters in February 2004; they were rejected 59%-41%.

Innovative health care policy has been an Oregon specialty. It legalized assisted suicide, in referenda in 1994 and 1997, to the point that doctors can prescribe but not administer lethal drugs; from 1997 to 2006, 292 people have killed themselves. Attorney General John Ashcroft angered many Oregonians by announcing in November 2001 that the federal government would prosecute doctors prescribing lethal drugs; a federal judge quickly blocked that, and the Supreme Court ruled 6–3 in January 2006 that the federal government had overstepped its powers. Another innovation was Kitzhaber’s Oregon Health Plan that went into effect in 1994. State Medicaid officials draw up lists of some 700 medical treatments and rank them by effectiveness and importance to basic health. Then based on cost estimates, the state decides how many treatments it can afford, and draws a line—above the line, the state will pay; below, it won’t. After voters rejected tax increases in referenda in 2003 and February 2004, the Oregon Health Plan took the brunt of the spending cuts.

Some issues arise unexpectedly. In March 2004 the Multnomah County Commission chairwoman ordered clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. About 3,000 couples got licenses until a judge enjoined the clerks and referred the matter to the legislature. Attorney General Hardy Myers opined that the Oregon Supreme Court would probably find same-sex marriage constitutionally required. Governor Ted Kulongoski complained of being “blindsided” by the Multnomah licenses; he favored civil unions and said he hoped the issue would not divide the state. Across Oregon petitions were quickly circulated to put the issue on the ballot; a record 244,000 signatures were filed in July, far more than the 108,000 required. Local and national groups favoring same-sex marriage targeted Oregon for a full-fledged campaign; it was clearly the most culturally liberal of the 11 states voting on the issue in November 2004. In all $2.9 million was spent opposing this Measure 36, and very little in favor. It passed 57%-43%—a solid enough margin, but one indicating more widespread support than might have been expected for a position considered politically untenable not so long before.

If Oregon voters, by a relatively narrow margin in the national perspective, voted in 2004 to maintain the current definition of marriage, they also voted for a change in the longstanding trend of environmental policy in the state. Oregon pioneered state land use regulation and restriction; in 1973 it passed a state land use law that in many ways limited development and in the 1990s the Portland metro area sharply restricted growth and what many considered sprawl. These measures have been widely popular in Portland and the university towns and to a lesser extent in the suburbs. But environmental restrictions have raised hackles in non-metropolitan Oregon. Logging in the Pacific Northwest was largely wiped out because of restrictions imposed to protect the threatened spotted owl. This provoked sharp protests, and moves toward Republicans, in timber country. In 2001 the Interior Department cut off water to 1,000 farmers in the Klamath Basin, to protect the endangered and in any case unhappily named sucker fish. This became a major issue in the local media and helps explain why parched eastern Oregon, which once elected the Democratic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has become as heavily Republican as Portland is Democratic. In 2004 the discontent seemed to run statewide. State land use law prevented landowners from building houses on land without farming it, even if the land is unsuitable for farming. An aggrieved landowner sparked a petition drive that put on the November ballot Measure 37, requiring state and local governments to excuse property owners from rules enacted after they bought the land or compensate them for complying. In something of a surprise it passed 61%-39%, carrying even Portland’s Multnomah County. It seems likely to make many land use restrictions nugatory, since state and local governments are not likely to be able to afford compensation for loss of value they have been happy to inflict on landowners.

Is there some common thread in Oregonians’ votes on ballot issues? One common thread seems to be a regard for personal autonomy and a readiness to discard traditional rules and ways of doing things. Another seems to be a desire for putting some limits on the ability of officeholders to spend public money and to impose costs on citizens. Voting on most of these measures has followed similar patterns, with Portland and the university towns of Eugene and Corvallis taking liberal positions and counties east of the Cascades and outside the metro area taking more conservative stands.

These cultural and regional differences have been reflected increasingly in Oregon’s partisan politics. In the 1980s and 1990s, the gulf between liberal Portland and Multnomah County and conservative eastern and southern Oregon widened and since 2000 it has been a chasm—and has left the state as a whole fairly close to evenly divided. In 2004 John Kerry carried Multnomah County 72%-27% and George W. Bush carried the counties east of the Cascades 63%-36%. The balance has generally tilted toward the Democrats, but not always. Oregon voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988 and for Bill Clinton twice. But Clinton’s margin was smaller in 1996 than 1992, and in 2000 Al Gore won here by only 47.0%-46.5%; one reason was that Ralph Nader won 4% here in 1996 and 5% in 2000. In 2004 Nader was not on the ballot, and his votes seem to have gone to Kerry, who carried the state 51%-47%. Starting in 1986, Oregon has elected only Democratic governors, though only once by a wide margin; Kulongoski was reelected in 2006, but by only 51%-43%, an unimpressive showing in what was a Democratic year nationally. From 1994 to 2000 it elected Republican legislatures, but Democrats captured the state Senate in 2004 and the state House in 2006.

In 1998 Oregonians voted by referendum to hold all elections by mail. So there are no polls open on Election Day; voters have until that night to get their ballots to the election clerk. Proponents of mail-in ballots argue that they increase the percentage of eligibles who vote, which has always been high in Oregon anyway, and they give voters time to read over and think about the numerous ballot initiatives. Opponents fear they increase the possibility of fraud; Oregon has no statewide registry, so people might be able to cast votes in multiple counties.

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