The nonprofit organization Voter Education Project recently filed legal complaints against three signature gatherers in Portland and Salem, citing such illegal practices as signature forging and signature theft involving con-man tactics, such as T-shirt giveaways, to lure voters into signing initiatives the circulators misrepresented.
VEP submitted evidence of the forgery and fraud to the Secretary of State and Attorney General’s offices, who are currently conducting investigations on three individuals, Francisco Holdman, Daniel Ricca and Harry Buehler.
“College campuses are often targeted by circulators for several reasons,” according to VEP spokesperson, Patty Swentz. The first is that in Oregon, state law permits signature gathering to take place on public property only, which means primarily parks and sidewalks. Student are seen by circulators as easy targets because of their politically active nature and their increased likelihood of believing the circulators .
Also, the population at colleges and universities constantly changes, which makes it easier for gatherers to access a greater pool of signatures while maintaining a more anonymous identity.
Director of Campus Safety John Fowler stated on the Portland State campus, any possible violations would be subject to an Oregon State Law statute that reads, “A person commits the crime of criminal trespass in the second degree if the person enters or remains unlawfully in a motor vehicle or in or upon premises.”
Fowler could not, however, recall any incidents where circulators who have been asked to leave because of obtrusive behavior did not do so. He also stressed that overall, campus safety and the numerous circulators have had a “supportive relationship,” with few problems.
The role of campus safety officers, Fowler reiterated, is merely to respond to any complaints that people may have about any actions by circulators, and to ensure that members of the PSU community have “the right to pursue academic excellence.”
Besides the efforts of the Voter Education Project in gathering information and submitting reports about possible violators of election laws, there is a campaign sponsored by the Democracy Resources of Oregon who are attempting to introduce legislation that will make it mandatory for all circulators to be paid by the hour, above minimum wage, and for them to receive benefits such as insurance.
PSU senior Rahna Grant, who has been actively working on the campaign, explained, “If gatherers were to be paid by the hour, they would have more security, and they wouldn’t have to use other tactics to try to get signatures.”
Swentz agreed with this, adding that while VEP was initially “shocked” by their findings, the use of such tactics “makes sense” when one examines the conditions that circulators face.
“When circulators are paid by the signature, it becomes all about the money, and some will do whatever it takes to do that,” Swentz said. “And it’s much easier to do that since Oregon law doesn’t actually require full information of the person signing, just the signature. There needs to be more voter education and people need to be made aware of how it all works.”
ASPSU President Mary Cunningham was also concerned about the issue and said that student government was fully aware of the extent that students are targeted. She also cited the success of the “Sizemore effect,” which allows for wealthy interest groups to “manipulate the process, because they can afford to pay for it.”
ASPSU members such as Kristin Wallace are working with VEP and other groups to further educate voters, which will begin with a voter registration campaign for the political primaries. Cunningham also warned to look for signs of suspicious activities by circulators, such as those who may have large numbers of petitions at once, some of which may even have conflicting viewpoints with each other or some who may not have the actual petitions on them at all.