There’s a new forged signatures controversy, this time involving the ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage.
I should say “alleged forged signatures” at this point, as the Attorney General’s Office is investigating and no one has been charged yet.
But Channel 7’s Marshall Zelinger (whose on-camera confrontation with Republican Senate candidate Jon Keyser over likely forged signatures on his nominating petitions did as much as anything to sink Keyser’s candidacy) talked to one of the voters whose name appears on the minimum-wage petition.
“Do you see your name on this list?” asked Zelinger.
“Yes, I do,” said Lakewood voter Randal Wagner.
“Is that your handwriting?” asked Zelinger.
“No, it isn’t,’ said Wagner.
“Did you sign this petition?” asked Zelinger.
“No, I did not,” said Wagner.
Wagner, in fact, told Zelinger he declined to sign the minimum wage petition when he had a chance to.
The petition circulator, whom Channel 7 is not naming because he hasn’t yet been formally accused of anything, also talked to Zelinger and said he did not forge any signatures.
The ballot initiative in question would raise the minimum wage from its current $8.31 an hour to $12 an hour by 2020. The Secretary of State announced last week that there were enough valid signatures for it to appear on the ballot.
The Secretary of State’s Office noticed three pages of signatures in the five percent random sample chosen for verification that included signatures that appeared to be in the same handwriting.
Now, here’s the odd thing about how this works: The secretary of state can’t actually strike those signatures. (That would require a change in state law.) A few of them were included in the “valid” count because the name and address matched voter registration information. And there aren’t enough of these questionable signatures to make a difference in whether the initiative qualifies for the ballot.
But the secretary of state did refer the matter to the Attorney General’s Office for follow-up. That’s a policy change that came about in response to the problems with Keyser’s petitions and Channel 7’s dogged reporting on it. The petition circulator in that case has been charged with 34 counts of forgery, and it turned out she had been criminally charged with forgery in the past.
So, how common is it to forge signatures on petitions?
Steve Adams, a partner with Rocky Mountain Voter Outreach, which employed Maureen Moss, the circulator charged in Keyser case, said that the way most petition circulators are hired and paid, there’s a lot of opportunity for cheating. At the same time, he thinks most petition circulators are honest and also professionals who wouldn’t cut corners out of concern for their reputation in the industry.
Adams said his company, which also operates as Black Diamond Outreach, is different from most in that it hires circulators at an hourly wage and has them go door-to-door. The idea is to collect information that will be useful to campaigns going forward. Most other companies pay independent contractors by the signature, and they might collect in grocery store parking lots or in front of libraries or other places where it’s hard to follow up with voters.
“That style of collecting signatures is ripe for fraud,” he said.
After the forgery charges, Rocky Mountain changed its internal procedures. Company notaries used to just notarize the affidavit of the circulator that the signatures were valid to the best of their knowledge. Now they actually go through the signatures and see if any look suspicious. (And in fact, the company had raised questions about some of Moss’ signatures before they were turned in, but she swore they were authentic.)
“We look at the signatures to make sure they don’t look like someone just sat down at Starbuck’s with a cup of coffee signing names,” he said.
But deciding to do that required a lot of internal discussion, Adams said. Ultimately, the firm decided its reputation is at stake, and it needs to be able to stand behind signatures collected by its circulators. If there is a question about the validity, they can go back to the address and ask the voter.
But traditionally, the validity of the signatures has been seen as the responsibility of the circulator, and Adams said that at the end of the day, that’s still the case.
“I would hope it doesn’t happen very much,” he said.