Sign My Petition or I’ll Lose My Job – Part Four
Striking the Right Balance—Reporting Fraud and the Oregon Voter
In 2003, angered by reports of fraud and corruption in the initiative process, a group of Oregon advocates decided to strike back. Taking to the streets, they ripped petition sheets from canvassers’ hands and loudly denounced the workers for alleged crimes against the Oregon electorate.
The intensity of their efforts caused a significant backlash. Numerous petitioners filed affidavits with the Oregon Secretary of State. They claimed they were mobbed, surrounded, and shouted at violently.
Herb Jenkins, a longtime signature gatherer, told his story to Northwest magazine Brainstorm Northwest. He said activists ”would stand between myself and people trying to sign my petitions and tell them not to sign. They’d see where you were and get on a cell phone and within a half-hour, they had three people in your face, being belligerent. I was at the Farmer’s Market on 42nd one day, and they grabbed my board and started ripping up my petitions –- and they were signed petitions.”
Jenkins points out that responding to allegations of fraud by use of force and disturbing the peace is “illegal.”
Title 18, Section 245 of the United States Code of Statutes lists federally protected activities. These include:
“[W]illful injury, intimidation, or interference, or attempt to do so, by force or threat of force of any person or class of persons because of their activity as a voter, or person qualifying to vote.” (emphasis added)
Furthermore, Section 241 of the Code ”makes it unlawful for two or more persons to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person…in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him/her by the Constitution or the laws of the United States.”
The U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government…”, a phrase that has been officially interpreted to include the right to circulate petitions. In California, for example, protection of circulators is part of the state’s Elections Code:
“Every person who threatens to commit an assault or battery on a person circulating a referendum, initiative, or recall petition…or to inflict damage on the property of the circulator or the relative, with the intent to dissuade the circulator from circulating the petition or in retribution for the circulation, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
In the 2007 case Van v. Target Corp., a California court ruled that individuals have the right to circulate petitions on both public and private property, provided that those properties “have the attributes of a public forum.”
Unlike California, Oregon does not give circulators the right to be on private property, but circulators do have the right to be on public property.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, ”The initiative and referendum process goes to the core of our political system in Oregon, and petition circulators have a right to go to public places to collect signatures.”
The protests that targeted Jenkins while he was circulating petitions became even more complicated when Jenkins claimed the activists told him they were from the Voter Education Project.
The Voter Education Project was created by labor leader Tim Nesbitt in 2001 and disbanded in 2003. It received funding from public and private labor unions, and worked in coordination with the Oregon AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest federation of unions). While claiming to pursue a goal of increasing voter awareness, they actually had ulterior motives.
Dane Waters, of the Virginia-based Initiative and Referendum Institute, told Brainstorm Northwest that, “Oregon was the original impetus—to shut down [conservative activist] Bill Sizemore—that was the genesis of the project. The union and the individuals behind it are using it as a model to (battle) initiatives they don’t like in other states.”
A National Public Radio reporter went even further, describing the goal of the organization as “trying to defeat initiatives before they even qualify for the ballot.”
In the end, the protests were not about voter awareness, but constituted intimidation tactics by interest groups opposed to the petitions being circulated.
Here we are now
Politics is a complicated business. What seems to some people a brave, noble effort can transform overnight into something underhanded and calculated. According to Daniel HoSang, Professor at the University of Oregon, this complexity can drive people away from participation in politics.
HoSang says this inherent complexity includes “everything people detest about politics: complex issues that can’t be simplified, problems that can’t go away from a mere signature. It’s everything people hate about campaigning: appealing to base natures, acting uncivilized, etc. And that’s what the intiative process favors: simplistic arguments, simplistic ballot measures, simplistic solutions to complex problems.”
At the same time, though, when you hear stories of corruption and fraud, it is important to not withdraw from participation. Former Secretary of State Phil Keisling points out that, in politics, corruption is inevitable.
“Whatever system you have, you will have the possibility of fraud. Significant and meaningful fraud versus occasional and trivial fraud is an important concept. If you are so obsessed with preventing the possibility of occasional fraud, you run the risk of shutting down or undercutting other values.”
So without throwing out the baby with the bath water, what should voters do when encountering political efforts that rub them the wrong way? And what should voters do about canvassers who misrepresent petitions?
Well, to begin with, you shouldn’t rip petition papers out of their hands. Doing so breaks state and federal law, and could constitute interference with the voting process.
Andrea Cantu-Schomus, the Communications Director for the Oregon Secretary of State, advises that voters should first and foremost know what they are signing:
“We want the public to be aware of what they are signing. Feel free to ask as many questions as possible. Those gathering signatures do have to have the language of the initiative with them. So if voters have concerns about what they are signing, or they aren’t quite sure, circulators can present them with the language. And then voters can take it upon themselves to read it and then decide if they want to sign or not.”
Cantu-Schomus also believes the people of Oregon should be engaging the initiative process and taking responsibility.
“Folks should definitely be a part of the political process and ask questions and feel comfortable,” she says. “These folks are all registered with the Secretary of State’s Office and should be following all the rules. And they should have some identification with them. [Voters] should feel comfortable talking to them. We pride ourselves in our initiative system and we put that in the hands of the people.”
If voters believe a petition gatherer is misrepresenting a petition, Cantu-Schomus advises them to call the Elections Division.
“We have a Fraud and Abuse Hotline, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call it toll-free at 1 (800) 336-8218. Or give our Elections Division a call and we can look into any complaints.”
According to Cantu-Schomus, the Elections Division is open 8 AM – 5 PM, Monday through Friday, and can be reached at (503) 986-1518 or toll free at (866) 673-VOTE.
While there is a system in place to address complaints, Cantu-Schomus stresses that voters must act before the Secretary of State can do anything:
“We are complaint-driven system, so for us to look into an issue, we need to receive a complaint. So voters need to file either a formal complaint or anonymously call our hotline. It is the voters’ responsibility.”
This voter-driven response might be sufficient for voters who stay aware of current events and have more knowledge about the petitions they are asked to sign. But what can less informed voters do?
According to Professor HoSang, the best strategy is to remain skeptical. ”I no longer sign anything, for example, at the University. A healthy amount of skepticism and cynicism on the part of the voters is what is needed.”
Light at the end of the tunnel?
Not everyone is a skeptic, though. Roman, former Democracy Resources employee, disagrees with HoSang’s sentiment. He believes canvassers are merely trying to make a living — and most canvassers are not trying to deceive voters.
“If the Eugene office actually conducted its campaigns the way that the company says it does, I don’t think there would be an issue. We just wanted to make ends meet. I don’t think there’s anything insidious about my co-workers. I think they’re just scared and pressured by their supervisors. Fear makes people do things they regret. If we were treated right and given respect, canvassing would have a much better name.”
But if the problem is indicative of the employers rather than employees, as Roman claims, the solution is more complicated.
“The companies themselves are liable,” Keisling says. ”Like any company, they should make sure their employees are following the law.” But he warns that fear of the possibility of a small amount of fraud can cause a harmful overreaction. ”If you try to prevent anything bad, you risk shutting down the democratic process.”
If imposing too much responsibility on petition-gathering companies risks damaging the democratic process, the best one can hope for is that enough voters are politically savvy or skeptical to hold individual canvassers responsible.
Charles, a current employee of Democracy Resources, isn’t sure more pressure on canvassers is the answer. Confronting voters who adopt an adversarial stance to petition gatherers is just adding more pressure to their job, he says, pressure that created this problem in the first place.
“I’ve seen people get more signatures by not asking [if individuals were registered to vote] and they were held up as examples by the company. I always follow the rules, so I never get praised. You’re doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t. That’s a lot of pressure on both sides.”
Keisling takes Charles’ point a step further: ”It’s unfair to single out people on the streets trying to eke out an existence.”
But if more legal pressure on petition gathering employers and employees isn’t the answer, do voters have to pick up the slack?
According to Cantu-Schomus, the answer is yes. She stresses that it is up to the voters to do their homework and take responsibility for reporting fraud.
Ultimately, knowledge is power. In politics, that power must be used responsibly and actively by citizens. As Oregon voters face upcoming elections, it is vital that they understand what they are being asked to sign and know what to do when they encounter petition fraud.
Further, as Professor HoSang points out, Oregon voters still have the ability to access their government and influence the initiative process:
“Frankly, it’s not as bad as it could be. [In terms of population,] Oregon is one third the size of Los Angeles County. Legislators are still accessible, campaigns are accessible. Sure, it’s driven by a small handful of wealthy donors, but it’s not captive to every single special interest like California. In the end, it’s a hundred year old system reflecting the best and worst of our money-dominated political culture. We need to be sober and aware of that history.”
Part One - Part Two - Part Three – Part Four - Tomorrow: EDN asks two leading thinkers in Oregon to discuss their views on the Oregon initiative process: its history, its significance, the corruption present in the system, and how they see the process evolving in the future.
Background, discussion and details are available on the R.L. Stollar, Journalist blog.
Note: Democracy Resources did not respond to numerous attempts on EDN’s part for comments or an interview on this or any other part of the investigative series.