AS MASSACHUSETTS voters face another batch of citizens' initiative petitions, including one controversial anti-gay marriage petition, it's important to consider that petition drives in today's world are often the product of big-moneyed special interests, not concerned neighbors going door-to-door.
Oregon is perhaps the best example of the initiative process gone amok. During the last decade, Oregonians have voted on more than 100 ballot initiatives ranging from antitax petitions to measures regulating denturists and drugs. Most were not issues that bubbled up from the citizenry, but rather the efforts of well-heeled interest groups that hired out-of-state firms which pay a dollar for every signature collected. Not surprisingly, this led to rampant fraud and forgery, as paid signature gatherers sometimes said and did anything to make a bigger weekly check.
Oregon's response was to create the Voter Education Project in 2001, a nonprofit organization combating fraud in the petition process. What we found stunned even the most cynical: Two signature collectors, who were later prosecuted, turned in 30,000 signatures that were rife with fraud; tens of thousands of signatures were removed or invalidated, partly based on footage from our hidden cameras at key collections spots. One of the petitions they were caught carrying was a fake gas tax repeal designed to get the attention of potential signatories. As a result of their arrests, Oregon passed a law in 2002 barring payment for signatures collected on citizen petitions.
I believe the problems in signature-gathering in Massachusetts are just as vile. Even worse, there is no simple reporting or enforcement system that protects voters from being duped.
After testifying recently before the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Election Law, I was impressed by the engagement of hundreds of voters who complained of signature fraud. By contrast, in Oregon we had to track down people who experienced these abuses because they were unaware. What I see happening in Massachusetts is serious abuse: voters complaining of signing multiple petitions when their objective was simply to support wine sales at their local grocer. Instead, signature gatherers asked them to sign a second or third page saying additional signatures were needed. Some saw the bait and switch right away and refused; others signed and only realized the trickery later.
And it wasn't just voters who complained. Angela McElroy, a former paid signature collector, spelled out the drill for the committee. She testified that collectors had a clever way to arrange the petitions on their clipboards so that it appeared that the beer and wine petition was the one being signed, not the anti-gay marriage one. She said that tricking voters into signing multiple petitions was encouraged in her training, that she witnessed fellow workers forge names onto the anti-gay marriage petition and that she took the job in Massachusetts because she was told it was easier to make money here because voters were more easily fooled.
After examining the petition forms used in Massachusetts, I can see why: There's virtually no distinction from one petition to the next, so it's difficult to tell which petition you are signing.
I also wasn't surprised to hear Mike Arno of Arno Political Consulting, a signature-gathering firm, defend the practices of paid signature-gatherers he subcontracts. In Oregon we demonstrated for the courts that the Arno system of paying by the signature and subcontracting for signature gatherers can lead to fraud. VoteonMarriage.org refused to tell the committee how much money it is paying for Arno's services.
Those observations along with my experience in Oregon and other states suggests that Massachusetts voters could easily end up certifying a petition that is inherently flawed, rife with the signatures of those who did not intend to sign.
It's time Massachusetts took firmer hold of this process and ensured that its voters are neither misused nor duped. The state's current system makes it difficult for voters to report or even question signature collecting. Its laws make it equally difficult to prosecute questionable, even dishonest behavior. And by allowing outside interests to pay collectors by the signature, Massachusetts is endangering a constitutional process that was purposely designed to be arduous, yet doable. It was meant to give citizens a voice, not to enrich firms from out-of-state.
Jeannie Berg was director of Oregon's not-for-profit Voter Education Project from 2001 to 2003.