The cost of a voter’s signature

A person signs a petition to put a measure on the ballot, January 2014 (KOIN 6 News)
A person signs a petition to put a measure on the ballot, January 2014 (KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Professionals who gather signatures for ballot measures are common on statewide issues. They are less common on local issues, but one group is using the pros to collect enough voter sign-ups — and some are complaining about their tactics.

Since October, the Portlanders for Water Reform has been working to gather more than 29,000 signatures to put their measure on the ballot. The group wants a question on the ballot that will allow Portland voters to decide if an independent board should control the water and sewer departments instead of the city.

In the process, they’ve encountered allegations of lying and breaking the law to get people to sign. The complaints say signature gatherers have lied about what the measure would accomplish, gathered signatures from people too young to vote and lied about who was supporting the measure.

Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, January 2014 (KOIN 6 News)
Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, January 2014 (KOIN 6 News)

“It’s fairly unusual to get complaints on the initiative process at the local level,” Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown told KOIN 6 News. “Like any other elections law violation, we take a look, we investigate and determine whether there has been a violation.”

The group’s Kent Craford is dismissive of the allegations.

“They’re circling the wagons,” he said, and added he’s not aware of anyone knowingly misleading a potential signer.

“And you really have to look at who’s making these allegations.The majority of these complainants are consummate City Hall insiders.”

The state of Oregon has many restrictions and safeguards in place for protection about signature collection, but local governments don’t.

“My encouragement to citizens, whether being asked to sign local measures or state measures, is to look, read before you sign and to review the measure in its entirety before you actually sign an initiative petition,” Brown said. “And that’s for a local measure or a state measure.”

The only part of a local ballot initiative the state can investigate is whether signature gatherers are breaking election law by doing something like lying.

In this case, a KOIN 6 News review found at least one of the complaints relating to false statements by the collectors is false. The signature gatherer did nothing wrong.

But another complaint, if true, is a violation of elections law.

Craford said he thinks “our signature gatherers have been very well trained. They’re mostly pretty knowledgeable about the issues.”

The problem is, Secretary of State Brown acknowledged, it’s very tough at the local level to prove anyone broke the law to get signatures.

Local governments don’t have investigators on staff. Paid signature gatherers don’t have to undergo background checks, don’t have their name and photo on file and aren’t identified on the street with signature sheets that are a different color.

All those things are required for statewide initiatives.

“I think the regulations we have passed at the state level governing the state initiative process have been extremely effective,” Brown said.

If local governments wanted to, they could adopt stricter protocols.

An elections officer told KOIN 6 News it would be up to elected leaders to implement the state’s signature gathering rules, but the work they’re dealing with on local petitions already taxes their office.

KOIN 6 News has emailed each Portland City Council Member and Multnomah County Board member about the possibility of enhanced local rules and we will continue to update this story with their responses.

The local signature gathering issue will not disappear. Another group is currently fighting to bring a portion of the Convention Center hotel deal to a county wide ballot.

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