Urban vote key in Oregon GMO labeling campaign

Supporters of mandatory labeling for genetically modified foods gathered before the Oregon State Capitol on July 2 to announce they've collected 155,000 signatures in support of a proposed ballot initiative. Analysts say the fate of the measure rests with urban voters.

By Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Bureau

The fate of Oregon’s genetically modified organism labeling initiative will hinge on whether heavy spending by opponents can overcome the liberal leanings of urban voters, experts say.

Dueling campaigns over Measure 92, which would require labeling of foods containing GMOs, are operating at full throttle as the election nears.

What’s far less certain is whether Oregon will buck the trend of biotech proponents defeating GMO labeling initiatives with well-funded campaign efforts, as occurred in Washington and California, experts say.

Political analysts say it’s a foregone conclusion that opponents of GMO labeling will outspend the measure’s supporters, as in the other states.

Urban voters, who have a powerful influence over Oregon politics, may tend to agree with GMO labeling, but experts have varying perspectives on how that demographic will affect the election.

Russ Dondero, retired political science professor at Pacific University, said the Portland metropolitan area is a “built in yes vote” for Measure 92.

Opponents of GMO labeling face an uphill battle because other communities in Western Oregon — where most of the population lives — also appear sympathetic to the labeling measure, Dondero said.

Proponents of labeling have also been working for about two years to bring attention to the issue and collect signatures in favor of the ballot initiative, giving them a head start in shaping the discussion, he said.

“If you can control the narrative of the debate, you can win,” Dondero said.

Despite the demographic advantage enjoyed by labeling proponents, their victory is by no means certain, said Len Bergstein, president of Northwest Strategies and a political analyst.

The 2014 election will not decide a presidential contest, so the outlook for voter turnout is ambiguous, he said. In such a situation, it’s unclear how motivated the urban population is to vote on the GMO labeling issue.

“The question of who will actually show up will decide this issue,” Bergstein said.

The GMO labeling measure and another initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana are among the most visible issues in the election, but support for these measures doesn’t necessarily neatly overlap, he said.

While the “hip crowd” may be aligned in support of both initiatives, other voters may oppose one and support the other, Bergstein said.

The marijuana measure appeals to libertarian voters, who want less government control, while the GMO labeling measure calls for more regulation, he said.

Bill Lunch, a retired political science professor at Oregon State University, said Oregon’s large population of liberal urban voters is not an insurmountable obstacle for opponents of GMO labeling.

Washington has an even larger urban population but voters rejected a similar GMO labeling initiative last year, he said.

The three largest counties in the Seattle metropolitan area contain nearly 52 percent of Washington’s population, while the three largest counties in the Portland metropolitan area contain 43 percent of Oregon’s population, according to U.S. Census data.

“The opponents have the upper hand,” said Lunch. “If they won in Washington, they should be able to win in Oregon.”

The “big caveat” is that voters in Jackson and Josephine counties in Southern Oregon approved GMO bans earlier this year, which shows that critics of biotechnology have made headway in rural areas, he said.

Those county initiatives, in addition to the discovery of unauthorized biotech wheat in Eastern Oregon in 2013, have brought more prominence to GMO issues in Oregon than in Washington or California, said Sandeep Kaushik, spokesman for the Oregon Right to Know campaign, which supports Measure 92.

“All these things in combination mean that more people are aware of the issue here and are more inclined to be supportive,” he said.

Pat McCormick, treasurer of the No on 92 Coalition, disagreed with that assessment, noting that a random Citizens’ Initiative Review panel of 20 Oregon voters recommended voting against the measure.

“The more people get to know this measure, the less they like it,” he said.

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