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Pandemic petition woes derail candidates, ballot initiatives

The Arizona deadline for filing ballot petitions is July 7, and the state is one of eight that prohibit payments per signature

James Craig, a former Detroit police chief who was running for Michigan governor, said he remembers pleasant conversations with petition circulators at his campaign events this spring and never suspected anything untoward was happening.

“I’m the candidate out giving speeches, and you think you have professionals working for you on the ground getting signatures. I had no idea anything was amiss,” said Craig, who was considered a frontrunner for the GOP nomination. He had raised $2 million, more than any other Republican vying to compete against incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November.

But a state elections panel in May disqualified Craig and four other Republican gubernatorial candidates, removing them from the GOP primary ballot after officials found thousands of fake signatures on their candidate petitions.

And nine of 10 Michigan citizen initiatives failed to make a deadline for signatures to get on the 2022 ballot. Some leaders said they feared their lists had been compromised by forgeries and sloppy work, and are now aiming for the 2024 ballot instead.

Similar problems will plague other states, experts fear, as election season intensifies and more states seek abortion changes through ballot initiatives. Michigan advocates face a July 11 deadline to gather more than 425,000 signatures for a ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution.

Because of the pandemic and remote work, there are fewer people on city streets to buttonhole for signatures, and the tight labor market has raised the costs for candidates and campaigns to hire signature gatherers. That makes it tougher for grassroots campaigns to get the work done without help from moneyed donors.

The problems have renewed the debate over paying ballot circulators by the signature, and whether doing so leads to fraud or gives wealthy candidates and groups a leg up. Eight states have banned the practice of paying by the signature, and this year Florida enhanced its existing ban on payments per signature by making it a felony offense, though it continues to allow other forms of payment.

“We’re going to see many more states having the same kind of trouble we saw [in Michigan],” said Corrine Rivera Fowler, director of policy and legal advocacy at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. The Washington, D.C.-based center advises liberal groups around the country on ballot initiatives.

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“If your incentive is to just hurry, then mistakes can be made,” Rivera Fowler said.

Michigan’s gubernatorial primary was the canary in the coal mine because of its June 1 deadline for filing ballot petitions, but similar deadlines loom at the end of June for California, in July for Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon and Washington state, and in August for Colorado.

In Nebraska, opponents of a ballot initiative that would require photo IDs for voting have complained about aggressive tactics by paid signature gatherers. Marlene Ricketts, the mother of Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, has donated $376,000 to the cause.

The cost of paying people to gather signatures has made it harder for grassroots causes and easier for the wealthy to get laws they want, said John Cartier, director of voting rights at Civic Nebraska, a progressive group that opposes the photo ID initiative and supports one for medical marijuana.

“It’s a pay-to-play system. The superrich in Nebraska can just write a check and fund the whole initiative,” said Cartier. Meanwhile, other advocates struggle to pay for signature gathering, he said.

But volunteers are working on the photo ID initiative alongside the paid workers, said Douglas Kagan, president of the conservative Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom and a volunteer petition circulator. He called critics “hypocrites who don’t like it when we raise money for conservative causes.”

Kagan said paid signature gatherers approached him at a gas station and obeyed all the rules.

A Nebraska judge added a wrinkle to the state’s ballot initiative process on June 13, barring the state from enforcing a 100-year-old requirement for advocates to get signatures from 5% of voters in 38 of the state’s 93 counties. The judge agreed with medical marijuana supporters that it gives too much power to rural voters at the expense of urban areas.

In Florida this month, a federal judge overturned a 2021 state law limiting contributions to support ballot initiatives to $3,000, disputing arguments by state officials that the “process is susceptible to the influence of large donors who fund petition gatherers, who in turn have incentives to falsify petition signatures,” according to the ruling. The judge found “no reason to think that large individual contributions … are to blame for this dynamic.”  

Labor shortages are pushing up the price of signature gathering services. In 2012, it cost $1 to $3 per signature, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures survey. That rose as high as $20 per signature recently, according to a Michigan secretary of state May report, blaming a “continuing lack of in-person events” where circulators typically work.

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“There are labor shortages, and these are temporary jobs, so they’re not the most attractive positions,” said Rivera Fowler.

In addition to Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming prohibit payments per signature, according to Ballotpedia.

In California, the Democratic-dominated legislature repeatedly has approved bans on per-signature payments only to have them vetoed by Democratic governors. A new bill would require a notice in bold type at the top of the signature sheet telling voters to sign only if they have seen a current list of top funders for the initiative.

Too many paid signature gatherers ignore an existing law requiring them to show the list of top funders, said Walker Hershey, a California Senate legislative aide to Democratic state Sen. Tom Umberg, a bill sponsor.

The California legislature passed a ban on per-signature payments for referendums in 2021, declaring that the practice “gives signature gatherers an incentive to deceive voters in order to obtain their signatures.”

But Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the measure, writing in a veto message that it might hurt grassroots campaigns: “Payment per signature remains one of the most economical methods to qualify for the ballot. This measure could therefore make the qualification of many initiatives cost-prohibitive for all but the wealthiest interests.” The legislature in January failed to override the veto.

Former California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed bills in 2011 and 2018 that would have banned the practice.

Maine lawmakers set out to ban payments per signature in 2019, with an initial bill saying that “large numbers of invalidated signatures … provides strong evidence that the practice of paying for signatures collected has corrupted the signature gathering process.” However, the bill signed into law was amended and requires only disclosure about the payment methods used to get signatures.

In Michigan, the secretary of state’s May report suggested many of the fraudulent signatures were copied from outdated voter lists and that individuals passed around sheets for each other to forge signatures in different handwriting.

One of the Michigan initiatives that didn’t make this year’s ballot called for a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour. One Fair Wage, the sponsor, will keep gathering signatures with a goal of collecting 600,000 by the end of June, and set its sights on the 2024 ballot, said Saru Jayaraman, president of the Washington, D.C-based group.

Michigan ballot advocates faced a particularly hard time this year because a court battle over ballot circulation rules delayed signature-gathering efforts until mid-February. Only after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled on the case in January could petition forms be printed. That delay in printing forms combined with poor weather stopped advocates from gathering signatures until early May, Jayaraman said.

“There are signature-gathering firms that have their own people, and then there are independent contractors who supplement them in crunch times. Everyone in Michigan faced a super crunch this cycle,” Jayaraman said.

Michiganders for Fair Lending, which is seeking a ballot initiative that would cap the interest charged on payday loans, organized the only petition drive that met the filing deadline. That group threw out about 170,000 of 575,000 signatures it collected before filing. Leaders “did not notice the sort of fraud that plagued the GOP gubernatorial campaigns” but did find more typical errors, such as signers writing a birthday instead of the date of signing or using the wrong county name, said spokesperson Josh Hovey.

Earlier this month, Michigan businessman Perry Johnson, another Republican gubernatorial candidate who was disqualified for fraudulent signatures, lost a bid in federal court to halt ballot printing while he argues his case to be included. Five other Republicans will appear on the ballots. And Craig has decided to conduct a write-in campaign for the Aug. 2 primary, in hopes of reviving his bid to unseat Whitmer.

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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Wes Oswald holds petitions as part of the 2021 launch of Invest in AZ.