Opponents of a measure to ban genetically modified crops in Jackson County question the "outrageous" timing of a survey mailed this week to 24,000 registered Jackson County voters and supported by the Oregon Secretary of State's office.

Opponents of a measure to ban genetically modified crops in Jackson County question the "outrageous" timing of a survey mailed this week to 24,000 registered Jackson County voters and supported by the Oregon Secretary of State's office.

"The timing of this 'voter survey' just days before an election is outrageous, confusing and unnecessary," Good Neighbor Farmers, a political action committee opposed to Measure 15-119, said in a release.

The survey is a research follow-up to a Citizens' Initiative Review of Measure 15-119 conducted in April. The survey asks voters whether they agree with statements ranging from "We should embrace the use of genetically modified foods even if they involve a small amount of scientific uncertainty" to "The prosperity of local farmers is more important than the rights of corporations to grow genetically engineered crops."

The survey also asks residents how they planned to vote on measures 15-119 and 15-121, which would create an extension service district, whether they were aware of the Citizens' Initiative Review and whether the CIR was helpful to them in deciding how to vote, among other questions.

Good Neighbor Farmers issued a press release Wednesday accusing Secretary of State Kate Brown of attempting to sway the local election in favor of the measure that would ban growing GMO plants in Jackson County.

Brown wrote a cover letter promoting the survey by asking voters to complete it, and that is where her involvement stops, said Tony Green, a spokesman in Brown's office.

"The secretary of state is very respectful of voters' concerns, she understands that people feel very strongly about the initiative. ... Her participation was entirely about making the Citizens' Initiative Review process stronger," Green said.

Penn State University professor John Gastil, who wrote the survey and is leading a research effort started in 2010 and focused on Oregon's Citizens' Initiative Review, said 24,000 copies of the 29-question survey were mailed to voters in Jackson County.

When non-partisan, nonprofit Healthy Democracy Oregon gathered 20 randomly selected Jackson County voters to evaluate contentious claims surrounding 15-119, with a goal of providing a realistic picture of what the proposal will and won't do, it marked the first time the CIR process had been tried at the local level.

State law limits the CIR process to state general election issues if it is run on behalf of the Oregon Citizens' Initiative Review Commission. Healthy Democracy Oregon was able to employ the process independently in Jackson County using charitable donations as funding, said its executive director, Tyrone Reitman.

Ian Tolleson, a spokesman for Good Neighbor Farmers PAC, said the survey's timing was "very suspect."

"The secretary of state definitely has every right to see how the voting has worked after the election, I just don't know why you would put this type of information out there beforehand," he said. "I think when people see stuff like this it's a little odd."

Gastil said he understands why people may have been caught off-guard by the survey, but insists it is not politically motivated nor biased toward either side of the issue.

"It's scholarly research, the purpose is to understand the electoral process, and understand election reform in Oregon. ... I think election reforms like (CIR) have great potential, but reforms like this must be tested empirically," Gastil said.

"It was probably a little startling to get this survey for your county election, but these types of surveys happen all the time on state and national levels ... this is how election surveys are actually done."

Gastil said mailing the survey prior to the primary election's May 20 deadline was crucial to receiving authentic and credible responses from participants, because election issues are still fresh in the minds of voters.

"Once you're done voting that is not what your brain is focused on any longer; your brain moves on," he said.

Green said the Secretary of State's Office received several complaints from survey recipients on both sides of the issue — mostly about the timing of the survey, and some about its questions.

Registered voter Cedric Buckingham, of Medford, said he received the survey Monday and felt it was biased in favor of Ballot Measure 19-115.

"As I started to read through it, I was concerned. I felt that most of the questions were pretty biased," Buckingham said. "If that thing would have came out after the election, I wouldn't have thought twice about it."

Elise Higley, director of Our Family Farm Coalition, a Medford-based political action committee in support of 15-119, said she didn't see any problem with the survey.

"I don't see anything in particular of concern at all," she said. "To me it seems pretty neutral."

Her office fielded a few calls from voters concerned about what the survey's purpose is, but it didn't raise any red flags, she said.

State Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said in an email to the Mail Tribune, "An investigation is needed to determine what violations might have occurred" by Brown endorsing the survey.

Portland-based MDC Research mailed the survey on behalf of Gastil and will conduct its analysis, Gastil said.

The ongoing research on the CIR process is funded entirely by a National Science Foundation grant split between research departments at Penn State and Colorado State universities, he said.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or swheeler@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/swhlr.