Yes on Question 7

Posted Oct. 22, 2009, at 6:55 p.m.

Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine to increase the amount of time that local officials have to certify the signatures on direct initiative petitions?

Democratic passions may drive the people who work to put citizen initiatives on the ballot. But it’s city and town clerks and their assistants who labor at verifying that the signatures on the petitions are those of registered voters. Approving Question 7 will make the clerks’ work a little easier.

Typically, those who gather signatures on petitions to put the questions on the ballot are working against the clock and calendar. And they typically bring the petitions to the city hall or town office for verification just barely ahead of the deadline. Belfast City Clerk Roberta Fogg says her staff usually works over the course of a week — current law requires petitioners to turn them in to municipal officials five days ahead of the deadline — to verify that the pages with the names and signatures of Belfast voters are indeed registered voters in the city. But it isn’t easy.

“Everything else in our office has to stop,” she says, while the work is done. In many small towns, clerks are multitasking, registering vehicles, accepting tax payments and so on while they also try to complete the verification process. Often, clerks and their assistants stay late, with no extra pay, to complete the work. Current law says municipal officers must “make every effort” to complete the work in time, she added. The petitions are then forwarded to the state, but must arrive there before a deadline.

Question 7, if approved, will add five more days so clerks will have 10 business days to verify the signatures. It also gives petitioners 10 more days to file their petitions with the Secretary of State’s Office. Beyond making life easier for both parties, approving Question 7 makes sense because it supports the integrity of the system.

Ms. Fogg said the state is pushing municipalities to scan voter registration cards into a central state database, so the signatures on the cards can be compared with those on the petitions. Currently, there are few safeguards against signature gatherers forging signatures by using names from voter lists or even the phone book. In recent years, Ms. Fogg has identified a handful of forged signatures.

More work should be done to block such fraudulent behavior, but passing Question 7 is a helpful start.

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