City Councilor Sally Mayer hopes petitioners will think twice before they break the law.
Mayer is sponsor to a bill that would require those who turn in signatures on petitions to sign a statement certifying that, to the best of their knowledge, the signatures they’ve gathered are from registered voters and that they are not forged or in any way fraudulent. The bill passed the Council last Monday, Aug. 21, by a vote of 8-0.
“It’s not going to solve the problem altogether, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Mayer says. "Hopefully, it will help us avoid the situation we had [in October 2005] during the campaign to put the minimum wage ordinance on the ballot--where we had about 3,000 false signatures.”
Assistant City Attorney Mark Shoesmith says if a petitioner is found guilty of willfully forging signatures, he or she can face fourth-degree felony charges of 18 months in jail and up to a $5,000 fine. Shoesmith makes clear, however, that if a person is found to have committed this crime, he or she is not prosecuted for falsely certifying that the signatures are valid. Instead, the canvasser is prosecuted for forging signatures. “The affidavit petitioners are required to sign is simply a tool that can be used to find out who’s responsible for the forgeries,” Shoesmith explains.
If signatures are found to be invalid but there doesn’t appear to be any malice intended by the signature collector (say if a petitioner doesn’t catch the “Donald Duck” signature on one of their pages), the signature will not be counted but there will be no criminal charges, according to Shoesmith. “This bill is addressing a serious issue with regard to forgery because, for example, last year, out of 87,000 signatures collected, 10,000 were found to be invalid and 4,000 were determined to be forged.”
Brian Mellor, legal councilor for the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), says his organization (which hires petitioners for various issues, including the minimum wage proposal last election cycle) has no problem with petitioners being “required to verify information.” However, Mellor stresses that petitioners should only be required to verify signatures to the best of their ability. “There are situations where a signature collector could be unintentionally fooled,” Mellor says.
Council President Martin Heinrich, who voted for the bill, believes the measure is a good idea but says the most important thing done to prevent fraud is already being done at the city level.
“We need to continue to have the City Clerk analyze each signature individually to make sure each signature comes from a registered voter,” Heinrich says. “I’ve worked on state campaigns where signatures are not individually verified and I’ve seen signatures, including one by ‘Fred Flintstone,’ that were obviously fake. It’s been my experience that people running for state office never get challenged regarding the validity of signatures unless another candidate challenges them in court, so it’s good that at least the city individually verifies.”
Mayer’s bill, which still awaits the mayor’s signature to become law, originally carried a clause that would have made it illegal to pay petitioners based on the number of signatures they obtain. “I’m afraid that practice does entice people to forge signatures, but after a lot of resistance from other people that have run for office, it was taken out of the bill,” Mayer says.