Pandemic petition derails candidates and ballot initiatives
James Craig, a former Detroit police chief who was running for governor of Michigan, said he recalled pleasant conversations with people circulating petitions at his campaign events this spring and that he had never suspected that anything untoward was happening.
“I’m the candidate giving speeches, and you think you have professionals working for you on the ground getting signatures. I didn’t know anything was wrong,” said Craig, who was considered a frontrunner for the GOP nomination. He had raised $2 million, more than any other Republican vying to rival incumbent Democratic Governor 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 forged signatures on their candidate petitions.
And nine of Michigan’s 10 Citizens’ Initiatives have failed to set a deadline for signatures to be on the 2022 ballot. Some leaders said they feared their lists had been compromised by forgeries and shoddy work, and are now targeting the 2024 poll instead.
Similar issues will plague other states, experts fear, as election season heats up and more states push for changes to abortion through ballot initiatives. Michigan defenders face a July 11 deadline to collect more than 425,000 signatures for a electoral initiative to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution.
Due to the pandemic and working remotely, there are fewer people on city streets to collect signatures, and the tight job market has increased costs for candidates and campaigns to hire signature collectors. . This makes it harder for local campaigns to do the job without help from wealthy donors.
The issues have reignited the debate about paying voters by signature, and whether it leads to fraud or gives wealthy candidates and groups a head start. Eight states have banned the practice of signature payments, and this year Florida strengthened its current ban on signature payments by making it a crime, although it continues to allow other forms of payment.
“We are going to see many other states having the same kind of problems that we have seen [in Michigan]said Corrine Rivera Fowler, director of policy and legal advocacy at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. The Washington, DC-based center advises liberal groups across the country on ballot initiatives.
“If your motivation is just to rush, mistakes can be made,” Rivera Fowler said.
Michigan’s gubernatorial primary was the canary in the coal mine due to its June 1 deadline for filing ballot petitions, but similar deadlines loom in late June for California, July for Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon and Washington State, and in August for Colorado.
In Nebraska, opponents of a ballot initiative who would require photo ID to vote have complained about aggressive tactics by paid signature collectors. Marlene Ricketts, mother of Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, donated $376,000 to the cause.
The cost of paying people to collect signatures has made it harder for popular causes and easier for the wealthy to get the laws they want, said John Cartier, director of voting rights at Civic Nebraska, a group progressive who opposes the photo ID initiative and supports one for medical marijuana.
“It’s a paid system. Nebraska’s super-rich can just write a check and fund the whole initiative,” Cartier said. Meanwhile, other defenders are struggling to pay for signature collection, he said.
But volunteers are working on the photo ID initiative alongside paid workers, said Douglas Kagan, chairman of the conservative Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom and volunteer petitioner. He called the critics “hypocrites who don’t like it when we raise money for conservative causes.”
Kagan said paid signature collectors approached him at a gas station and obeyed all the rules.
A Nebraska judge added a wrinkle to the state ballot initiative process on June 13, preventing the state from enforcing a 100-year-old requirement for advocates to obtain signatures from 5% of voters in 38 of the state’s 93 counties . The judge agreed with medical marijuana proponents that it gives too much power to rural voters at the expense of urban areas.
In Florida this month, a a federal judge struck down a 2021 state law limiting contributions to support ballot initiatives to $3,000, challenging state officials’ arguments that “the process is susceptible to the influence of large donors who fund petition collectors, who in turn are incentivized 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 drive up the price of signature collection services. In 2012, it cost $1 to $3 per signature, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures. investigation. That amount recently reached $20 per signature, according to a report by Michigan Secretary of State May, blaming a “persistent lack of in-person events” where circulators typically work.
“There are labor shortages, and these are temporary jobs, so they’re not the most attractive positions,” Rivera Fowler said.
In addition to Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming prohibit signature payments, according to Ballotpedia.
In California, the Democratic-dominated legislature has repeatedly approved bans on signature payments only to have them vetoed by Democratic governors. A new bill would be require a bolded notice at the top of the signature sheet telling voters to sign only if they have seen a current list of major funders for the initiative.
Too many paid signature collectors are ignoring an existing law requiring them to show a list of major funders, said Walker Hershey, California Senate legislative aide to Democratic Sen. Tom Umberg, sponsor of the bill.
The California Legislature passed a ban on signature payments for referendums in 2021, saying the practice “incentivizes signature collectors to trick voters in order to obtain their signatures.”
But Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the measure, writing in a veto message that it could harm grassroots campaigns: “Pay-by-signature remains one of the most cost-effective methods of qualifying for the ballot. This measure could therefore make the qualification of many initiatives prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest interests. The January legislature failed to override the veto.
Former California Democratic Governor Jerry Brown vetoed bills in 2011 and 2018 that would have banned the practice.
Maine lawmakers moved to ban signature payments in 2019, with a original invoice saying that “a large number of invalidated signatures…provides strong evidence that the practice of paying for collected signatures has corrupted the signature collection process”. However, The law project signed into law has been changed to only require disclosure of payment methods used to obtain signatures.
In Michigan, the Secretary of State’s May report suggested that many of the fraudulent signatures had been copied from outdated voter rolls and individuals were passing sheets to each other to forge signatures in different handwriting. .
One of Michigan’s initiatives that didn’t pass this year called for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. One Fair Wage, the sponsor, will continue collecting signatures with the aim of collecting 600,000 by the end of June, and is targeting the 2024 ballot, said Saru Jayaraman, chairman of the Washington, DC-based group.
Michigan ballot advocates have faced a particularly difficult time this year, as a court battle over ballot circulation rules delayed signature-gathering efforts until mid-February. Only after Michigan Supreme Court decided on the case in January, the petition forms could be printed. This delay in printing forms, combined with bad weather, prevented defenders from collecting signatures until early May, Jayaraman said.
“There are signature collection companies that have their own staff, and then there are independent contractors that supplement them in times of crisis. Everyone in Michigan has faced a super crisis this cycle,” Jayaraman said.
Michiganders for Fair Lending, which is seeking a ballot initiative that would cap interest charged on payday loans, organized the only petition campaign that met the filing deadline. This group threw about 170,000 of 575,000 signatures he collected before deposit. Leaders “failed to notice the type of fraud that has plagued GOP governors’ campaigns,” but found more typical errors, such as signers writing a birthday instead of signing date or using the wrong name county, said spokesman 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 stop the printing of ballots while he pleads his case to be included. Five other Republicans will appear on the ballots. And Craig decided to run a written campaign for the Aug. 2 primary, hoping to revive his bid to unseat Whitmer.