[gn_quote style=”1″]”As grassroots democracy becomes greenbacks democracy, it dilutes what’s best about the initiative process. It is supposed to be a system of citizens banding together on behalf of something they want to happen.” ~Then-Secretary of State Phil Keilsing, Oregon, 1994[/gn_quote]
In 2008, on the opposite side of the country, a man made news with a one-minute video.
Don Mohler, spokesman for Baltimore County, Maryland, filmed two signature collectors lying about their petitions at a local farmer’s market. The individuals were gathering signatures in support of binding arbitration during labor disputes, an initiative backed by the Members of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees. Once the video went public, it created an uproar. Further investigation revealed even more concerning information: of 28,300 signatures, nearly 11,000 of those signatures were rejected because they did not belong to registered voters. In the end, Baltimore County officials refused to honor the submitted petition.
The company hired by the union to collect these signatures was Oregon-based Democracy Resources. According to Jaime Malarkey of the Baltimore Examiner, “Company President Ted Blaszak did not return a call for comment, nor did union attorney Keith Zimmerman.”
Taking a stand against fraud
Democracy Resources has tried to distance itself from situations like this and has been instrumental in combating signature gathering fraud. It helped with Measure 26 in Oregon, an initiative passed in 2002 to prohibit paying petitioners per signature. In the aftermath of scandals around Oregon politicians’ involvement in corrupt petition campaigns, Measure 26 was supposed to be a strike against canvassing corruption.
Ted Blaszak, president of Democracy Resources, has stated: “When voters hear about fraud, they get turned off from the whole process. The most frustrating thing is that it’s just not hard to follow the law and treat your staff with respect.”
According to Blaszak’s company website, the company has its own model meant to prevent fraud:
“Paying circulators an hourly living wage creates honest opportunities for work in the local labor market. Happy employees focused on generating long term support engender a sense of trust and restore voter confidence in the initiative system.”
The company alleges that most of the corruption comes from conservatives, not from progressives:
“Volume attracts the nomadic, professional circulators who qualify 90% of each year’s conservative measures and are responsible for a large amount of the misrepresentation and misconduct all too commonly associated with signature drives.”
Unfortunately, one’s political persuasion does not seem to preclude fraud and misrepresentation. As the Baltimore incident reveals, Democracy Resources does not have entirely clean hands, however progressive those hands may purport to be.
“I’m not going to get paid to lie to people”
Baltimore was not the first and last time Democracy Resources was under fire for how it collects signatures. In Portland, Oregon, further incidents arose earlier this year.
Lisa Barton-Mullins, a Councilwoman on the Fairview City Council in Oregon, was twice approached by signature gatherers this year. Both times, while gathering signatures for the casino at Wood Village, the persons in question never mentioned the word “casino” to Councilwoman Barton-Mullins.
According to Sally Showman’s story for KOIN Local 6, Barton-Mullins said, “He came up to me and said, ‘We need to save 3,000 jobs and we’ll be building a family fun center and I need you to sign this.’ The normal person, when they hear ‘Do you want to create or save two to 3,000 jobs?’ they’d think ‘Of course.'”
Being a member of the Fairview City Council, she knew better. She knew that “save 3,000 jobs with a family fun center” meant a pitch for a casino. But not everyone else is in a position to know that kind of local detail. And that’s the problem.
In response this situation, Democracy Resources broke from its normal strategy of silence. Ted Blaszak personally sent a letter to Sally Showman at KOIN Local 6. In his letter, he says,
“We are in no way trying to conceal that a casino is a part of the Wood Village East County Entertainment Project. The more than one hundred thousand Oregonians who signed this petition in the past few months were well aware that a casino is part of the project. Each canvasser is thoroughly trained to give the same information and use the same script in every conversation they have with voters. They are repeatedly quizzed to make sure they understand the issue and the script before they are allowed to gather any signatures.”
(Side note: EDN asked both former and current employees of the Eugene branch whether they get “repeatedly quizzed.” Not a single person said they were aware of such quizzes, much less having received them.)
But following this incident, Beth Marriott, a resident of Gresham, told the Gresham Outlook that she, like Barton-Mullins, had been approached by an employee of Democracy Resources. Like Barton-Mullins, Marriott was asked to sign a petition to bring a “recreation center” to Wood Village. But unlike Barton-Mullins, Marriott did not know this “recreation center” was a casino. Once again, the canvasser never mentioned the word “casino.”
According to Calvin Hall’s story for the Outlook, Marriott overheard the person’s pitch to other people and eventually crossed her name off. Hall reports: “‘It was like pulling teeth to find out it was a casino,’ Marriott said. ‘He didn’t mention a single word about gambling,’ Marriott said. ‘He could have said right from the start we want to put in a casino. Of course, my answer would have been no.’”
Marriott and Barton-Mullins are not alone. As of two months ago, six people had called the Oregon Secretary of State to complain about the tactics of signature gatherers regarding the casino.
According to Robert Mueller, a former employee of Democracy Resources, the reports highlight a widespread, consistent problem. Robert says, “They just have a code of silence going on there. No one has answers to any questions.”
“I cannot speak for everyone,” says “Roman,” a former employee of Democracy Resources in Eugene who desires to remain anonymous. “But I can speak from my own experience. Training in general? Barely anything.”
“We had 30 minutes to learn about Measure 21 and 35,” he continues. “Training for the casino petitions? Nothing. Zero time. The first time they sent me to Corvallis, I asked the supervisors, ‘What’s the script for [Measure] 36? They said, ‘We don’t have time for that. Read the back [of the petition].”
Roman had no idea what the petition was about — other than it had to do with a casino in Portland. (Though actually that is 38, not 36. 38 sanctions the Wood Village Casino; 36 is a flat legalization of private casinos in Oregon.)
“I didn’t ask for a complete briefing. I just knew nothing. I wanted to know something. So I was forced to ask my co-workers in the car on the way to asking voters to sign something I knew nothing about.”
And on the way to Corvallis was when Roman became worried.
“I asked the other three in the car, ‘What do I tell people?’ All three had the same advice: ‘If you mention “casino,” people won’t sign. Start with the other petition. Then flip it over [to the casino petition]. Tell them, ‘Here’s another petition to help schools. It creates 3,000 permanent jobs, over 1 million dollars a year for schools, by making a family entertainment center, resort, waterpark, hotel…’ and then, at the end, then say casino last. Put it last. Try not to even say it.’”
And that was just the beginning, Roman said.
“Each person changed their pitch. Some said, ‘Oh we’re giving 50% of the profits to schools,’ others said 75%, or even 100%. They’d say the casino was state-run, created 5,000 jobs, whatever they could do to get signatures. Some even said the Native American tribes support the casino because the tribes will get a percentage of the profits.”
Roman’s story of people’s pitches highlights a significant deviation on canvassers’ parts from what the petition actually does.
According to Good for Oregon, the group behind the casino petitions, only 25% of the revenue would go to state funds; only 2,500 permanent jobs will be created. The casino at Wood Village would be privately owned, not state-run. Not only that, but Measure 36 legalizes private casinos in general, not just the Wood Village one (the Wood Village casino is Measure 38). Roman claims the seasoned canvassers know all this.
“They purposefully change their pitches to deceive voters into signing something untrue,” he says. “They all got praise for bringing in ample signatures. I got no training, was told to lie, refused to lie, and got in trouble because I couldn’t get any signatures when I told people the truth. That’s why I quit. I’m not going to get paid to lie to people just to allow rich businessmen to con Oregon voters into building casinos.”
When asked about his experience with the casino petition, Jack, another Democracy Resources employee, had a similar story.
“When pushing casinos, the supervisors said to downplay the fact it was a casino. They said, ‘Say entertainment venue’ or ‘family fun center.’ We’d give a long list, making casino last, like a footnote, like, blah blah blah, cough, (casino).”
And that statement about the tribes supporting the casino, is that true? Not according to Justin Martin, manager of the Oregon Tribal Gaming Alliance, a coalition of all the federally recognized Indian tribes in Oregon that own and operate casinos. The official position of the OTGA on Measures 36-38, according to Martin, is opposed:
“We are opposed to anything that would be a threat to the Indian gaming industry. This industry has Oregon’s welfare in mind. Our industry has helped many rural areas in Oregon.”
When asked to comment on canvassers saying the percentage of casino profits being given to tribes would render the tribes supportive, Martin said,
“That is absolutely false. No one has talked to OTGA about the proposal. I would consider that offer pretty disingenuous.”
Martin also agreed it is important that petitioners are upfront about their petitions and that voters should know what they are signing.
“We support the ‘think before you ink’ campaigns. Oregonians deserve to know exactly what they are signing. If that is the case [that petitioners are not being upfront], and I can’t say it is, it is yet another example of the private gaming interests being disingenuous in their approach to Oregon voters.”
Not just casinos
“Charles” has worked for Democracy Resources for several months. He became uncomfortable not just with the casino petition but the corporate kicker refund petition. According to him, neither is presented accurately.
“Someone at Democracy Resources must have decided what sells and which points to ignore. You don’t say anything about the kicker. The actual script is, ‘Stop school closures.’ If you are asked how, you say, ‘By redirecting corporate tax breaks to education.’ But that’s not true. The tax kicker isn’t a tax break. And it totally impacts small businesses.”
When asked directly, all petitioners say that the corporate kicker petition, Measure 35, does not affect small businesses. It affects “corporations.” Either Democracy Resources does not train their employees correctly, or no one seems to know that “small business” and “corporation” are not mutually exclusive terms.
Not only that, but, according to Charles, Measure 35 is presented to voters as a last chance, do-or-die measure to save schools this very year. But there is no projected “kicker” expected for 2011, 2012, or 2013. So passing the measure will not impact school closures until at least 2014.
All these claims raise an important point: Oregon voters might not be getting the information they need to make an informed decision about initiatives. Further, if the signature gatherers are not presenting the petitions correctly — either because Democracy Resources is not providing the adequate training or due to intentional misrepresentation of the petitions — they could be in violation of Oregon law. They could face severe penalties and felony charges.
To determine whether canvassers are not trained properly or being deceitful on a systematic level, or both, EDN sent a team to interact with petitioners in hopes of finding out exactly what they were saying to voters.
Thirty petitioners were observed over the span of three different days: one day on the OSU campus, one day on the UO Campus, and one day at the Eugene Saturday Market. A hundred unique pitches to voters were observed between these 30 petitioners. Some pitches were to the undercover team directly, other pitches were observed by the team to passersby. The following is a summary of the results. A full report is presented at the end of this article.
Five petitioners worked in front of the OSU library on a weekday. Several common themes arose:
(1) “Casino” was not a prominently used term. As reported by former and current employees, the word “casino” did not usually appear in the employees’ initial approach. It was mentioned later upon being asked questions. Or if it was mentioned in an initial approach, it came at the end of a long list of what the petition would do.
(2) All five petition gatherers denied the petition’s actual text. All claimed the petition was to legalize one casino at Wood Village, not to legalize privately-owned casinos in general. So either every single person thought they were gathering signatures for Measure 38 (legalizing the Wood Village casino) or they intentionally misrepresented Measure 36 (legalizing privately-owned casinos in general) as Measure 38.
(3) None of the petitioners knew much about the measures they were soliciting voters’ approval for—be it about the number of jobs created, the amount of profit taxed, or whether tribal support existed for the measure.
A resident of Eugene was visiting the OSU campus that day and was approached by several petitioners.
“I knew about the casino petitions already,” he said, “so I knew what it was really about. But if I knew nothing, this would be a bad presentation. ‘Casino’ was not clearly mentioned and no one knew or told the truth that it’s actually about private casinos, not just the Portland one. Everyone seemed entirely preoccupied with just getting signatures, not the actual cause.”
The petitioners at the University of Oregon, on a separate day, showed similar disturbing trends. One petitioner was observed soliciting signatures from children. Three were distinctly heard encouraging non-registered voters to sign because they “had to meet quota.” All petitioners, when asked specifically whether Measure 35 (redirecting the corporate kicker refund to the public fund) would apply to all corporations or just big ones, said just big ones.
One employee used very vivid terminology. When asked if small businesses are impacted, he said,
“Only the big guy! Absolutely no small businesses! This is only for corporations that make millions and millions of dollars, like Nike and Disneyland.”
According to Roman, there’s a specific reason for this Measure 35 inaccuracy.
“Employees asked a supervisor one day about Measure 35. They were getting questions from voters about whether Measure 35 affects small businesses. The supervisor said, ‘If people ask questions like, ‘What businesses are affected,’ f*** ‘em. Don’t answer those questions. Those people aren’t going to sign. F*** ‘em.”
Eugene Saturday Market
At the Saturday Market, EDN directly asked canvassers about how they approach the casino petition to get the most signatures. They all verified what former employees told us: some do not say the word “casino” unless pressed, and all try to sneak it in at the end.
One employee said, “I start with, ‘Create 3,000 jobs.’ If asked how, I say a water park and resort. Then I say casino later.”
One employee did stand out, though, by mentioning “casino” at the very beginning and every time observed. She did not seem to be getting many signatures.
This practice, according to Charles, is not coincidental. It is a direct result of how the Eugene office instructs its employees.
“They encourage us to take advantage of people’s ignorance so that they can make money. It’s not about accurately representing the petition. It’s about selling it. We are told to downplay that 36 is about legalizing private casinos. And that’s the sales mentality. Most petitioners are not trained in sales. But I am, and selling casinos is about not saying you’re selling casinos. You’d lose a lot of signatures if you explained honestly and upfront what the petition was about.”
Charles adds, “When everyone says they already signed or are not registered to vote, if you want to keep your job you feel pressured to not abide by the rules. If you abide by the rules, you get half the signatures you would. But the people who get more signatures by not asking about registration — and no one’s monitoring whether you ask that or not — those people get held up as role models. They get praised. The company says it has secret voters going out, but no one has seen them. I’ve never come across a person double-checking.”
Robert gave the following summary of his two-day experience working for Democracy Resources:
“I’ve seen people making up their own signatures, sitting at home for their whole shifts making signatures, people asking homeless people to sign, homeless people would say, ‘I’m not allowed to vote,’ but employees would say, ‘I don’t care, I need to make quota.’ Honestly, it was better organized when I worked per signature. At the very least we used to get paid every day at the end of the day. This system is ridiculous. On my first day, as I was walking around, people were already saying it was a scam. There is bad vibe about Democracy Resources going on around town.”
Ted Blaszak said, “Happy employees…engender a sense of trust and restore voter confidence in the initiative process.”
However, as EDN has discovered, employees at the Eugene Democracy Resources are speaking out about how much pressure and hostility they encounter. Add to that the need to get 75 signatures a day with daily threats of termination, and you arrive at the situation revealed by EDN’s undercover experience: employees obtaining fraudulent or ineligible signatures, or employees outright forging signatures.
One would assume the practice in Eugene is not what Blaszak had in mind. As Blaszak himself said in response to the Portland casino kerfuffle, training and support are supposed to be important at Democracy Resources. According to Eugene employees, though, the training in Eugene is minimal and questions are actively discouraged. Campaigns to “Think before you ink” can only do so much when a supervisor tells his employees, “F*** questions.” How does that foster a sense of real democracy? And more importantly, how does that give employees the resources to promote democracy?
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.
General findings of undercover survey
Thirty petitioners were observed over the span of three different days: one day on the OSU campus, one day on the UO Campus, and one day at the Eugene Saturday Market. A hundred unique pitches to voters were observed between these 30 petitioners. Some pitches were to the undercover team directly, other pitches were observed by the team to passersby.
- 10% of petitioners, 100% of the time (12 potential signers), did not ask if the signers if they were registered to vote.
- 1 petitioner was observed collecting signatures from 4 children.
- 3 petitioners, when told by individuals that they already signed the petitions, were told it was appropriate to sign again because they had to meet their quota for the day.
Official ballot title: Amends Constitution: Allocates corporate income/excise tax “kicker” refund to additionally fund K through 12 public education
- 100% of the petitioners alleged Measure 35 takes the corporate kicker refund from “large corporations.”
- 100% said, when asked directly whether Measure 35 takes the corporate kicker refund from small businesses, said it did not.
- 100% said, when asked if small businesses are corporations, that the measure only applies to particularly large and/or rich corporations.
Official ballot title: Amends Constitution: Authorizes establishment of privately-owned casinos; dedicates percentage of adjusted gross revenues to special fund. (Compared to Measure 38: Authorizes Multnomah County casino; casino to contribute monthly revenue percentage to state for specified purposes.)
- 15% did not mention the word ‘casino’ in their pitch at all.
- 6 petitioners, when asked outright how they pitch the casino, said they try to either mention ‘casino’ last or not mention it at all.
- 100% of the petitioners said that Measure 36 legalizes one casino at Wood Village near Portland.
- 100% of the petitioners, when asked directly whether Measure 36 legalizes any other casinos or private casinos, emphatically denied that it did.
(The following are from different petitioners respectively:)
- 1 said the Measure was not to legalize a casino but tax a casino to give money to schools.
- 1 said the Measure was to build a “entertainment venue.” When pressed, the petitioner said it was for a casino.
- 1 said the Measure was to build a “resort.” When asked what the resort would have, the petitioner mentioned ‘casino’ at the end of a long list.
- 1 said the Measure was “for jobs in Oregon.” When asked how, said “we’re trying to build an entertainment center in Portland for f***ing schools and roads.” When asked whether this was the casino petition, said, “Yeah, this is just for one complex near Wood Village.”
- 1, after being asked if the Measure was for one casino or private casinos in general, used a hand to cover the part of the petition that says it legalizes private casinos in general, to emphasize where the revenue would go.
As a fair comparison:
- 3 petitioners working for the Oregon Marijuana Policy Initiative, gathering signatures on a petition to decriminalize marijuana, were observed talking to 40 different people. 100% of the petitioners, 100% of the time, never asked those signing whether they were registered to vote in Oregon.