Dead Man Signing

Posted Feb. 05, 2010, at 6:21 p.m.

Major corporations and national special interest groups have, in recent years, significantly stepped up their spending to get referendum questions on the Maine ballot. They are doing so not because they care about Maine people but because they want law changes that benefit their bottom lines.

Despite the rapid rise in spending on citizen initiative and people’s veto ballot questions — and the proliferation of these questions — the state remains ill equipped to ensure the process works for the benefit of Maine people. Two bills being considered by the Legislature take some modest steps to change that.

LD 1690, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, a Democrat from Bowdoinham, and LD 1730, sponsored by Sen. John Nutting, a Democrat from Leeds, would require that organizations hired to gather petition signatures register with the Secretary of State’s Office. Under LD 1690, this information would be posted online. Both bills would allow registration to be denied to those found to have violated state laws regarding signature collection. Rep. Berry’s bill also clarifies that contributions to petition organizations in excess of $5,000 be disclosed to the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

As important as these financial disclosure requirements, LD 1690 also would require the secretary of state to prepare a list of all the signatures it has declared valid on a specific question. This would make it easier for challengers to check the signatures to confirm they are valid. Currently, a group that wants to challenge the secretary’s determination would have to inspect the thousands of individual petitions.

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While lawmakers are considering tighter standards for signature gathering, they should make them consistent for both ballot questions and candidates. While those collecting signatures for citizen initiatives and people’s vetoes must be Maine residents and registered voters here, those collecting signatures to get a candidate on the ballot don’t have to live or vote here. The standard should be the same in both instances.

These changes should be only the beginning to addressing the abuse of the petition and citizen’s veto in Maine.

A story by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting published Thursday in the Bangor Daily News chronicled several instances of recent petition fraud. Alert town clerks recognized signatures that didn’t match the writing of the person they purported to be from. There were signatures of dead people. And, in a practice called “round-tabling,” signatures were copied from phone books; the tip-off was that “Geo” was signed rather than “George” and “Chas” rather than “Charles,” shorthand the phone company often uses, but that real people don’t tend to use in their signatures.

In each instance, the signature gatherer was paid and the petition — and often hundreds more — was thrown out. Many of those caught forging signatures said they did it for the money — between $1 and $2 per signature is generally the going rate — not because they felt strongly about the issue.

A more direct way to address the problem would be to ban paid signature gathers, but a federal court in Maine ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional. The ruling, however, suggested that if fraud were shown, the court could view the situation differently.

In the meantime, these bills offer some needed improvements.

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