The battle over a measure to require labeling of genetically altered food appeared headed to a recount Thursday as new totals showed it losing by fewer than 1,500 votes. Measure 92 moved into range of an automatic recount after Multnomah County released results that included a final batch of nearly 7,200 ballots that leaned heavily in favor of the initiative.
Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for the Measure 92 campaign, was encouraged by the prospect of a recount, but he acknowledged that "the math is daunting" because recounts don't usually turn around a race unless the margin is less than a few hundred votes.
Pat McCormick, a spokesman for the opposition campaign, said by email that despite the latest results, "We are confident Measure 92 has been defeated."
In part, the race tightened more than some analysts -- including at The Oregonian -- expected because supporters took advantage of a new Oregon law publicly identifying voters who cast what are known as challenge ballots. Those are ballots in which the signature of the voter doesn't match the signature on file or in which the voter neglected to sign the ballot.
There were just over 13,000 challenge ballots around the state, and Measure 92 supporters launched a major effort to get voters to go to their county elections office to sign their ballot or to send in a new voter registration card showing how their signature looks now.
Tuesday was the deadline to clean up challenge ballots, and it appeared that a relatively high percentage wound up being counted.
Veteran political pollster Tim Hibbitts, who calls races for Fox 12 TV, noticed on Wednesday that newly counted ballots in as many as 16 counties leaned more heavily in favor of the initiative than the votes cast earlier in each of the counties.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Hibbitts, who took the unusual step of announcing on TV Wednesday night that he was withdrawing his call -- made the day after the election -- that the measure would be defeated.
Hibbitts told viewers that he now thought the measure was too close to call and that he expected a recount. The state conducts an automatic recount if the margin is less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the total votes cast on Measure 92. In this case, the threshold for a recount is nearly 3,000 votes.
The last statewide recount was in 2008 on a measure regarding the government seizure of property found at crime scenes. The initial count showed it passing by 550 votes. A recount concluded that it actually passed by 681 votes.
On Measure 92, The Oregonian also called the race the day after the election and is standing by that call while continuing to monitor and report on developments.
The latest ballots reported by Multnomah County contained more than 2,000 challenge ballots as well as a number of ballots that were difficult to read by machine.
In the new batch, 68.5 percent supported Measure 92, about six percentage points higher than among ballots tallied earlier.
The campaign over Measure 92 was the most expensive ballot measure race in state history, with opponents spending $21 million and supporters spending $9 million.
Supporters argued that consumers should have the right to know if they are consuming food that has genetically altered ingredients, and they questioned whether adequate studies have been done on the safety of these products.
Opponents, bankrolled by the biotech and food industries, argued that genetic engineering is safe and that labeling would drive up consumer costs. They defeated similar measures in California in 2012 and in Washington in 2013 by narrow margins.Another GMO labeling measure, in Colorado, was soundly defeated this month.
This story was originally published on OregonLive.com.