Registration bait and switch?

Students passing through the Park Blocks yesterday afternoon were shocked to discover that a group of petitioners may have misled them into changing their party affiliation to Republican on their voter registration.

The petitioners, who refused to identify themselves and gave conflicting accounts of who they were working for, asked passers by to sign a petition “to lower auto insurance costs for young people.” When students signed the petition, they were handed voter registration cards and told to fill out only the name and address section, in order to “verify” their signature on the petition.

According to one of the petitioners, the group’s intent is to register everyone who filled out the voter registration card, with “Republican” selected under the party affiliation.

Many students who had signed the petition where surprised or outraged to learn that they may have inadvertently registered to vote as a Republican.

“I almost want to go back there and get my information back,” said student Sarah Workman, who signed the petition.

“They said, ‘you don’t have to put any info there,'” indicating the party affiliation section, Workman said, referring to the petitioners. “He said, ‘it’s ok, it’s just for verification.’ I am going to call my elections office.”

“It’s sick,” said student Jodi Kansager, who initially signed the petition, but then became suspicious when she was handed a voter registration card and asked to only fill out two lines. “I look at it and I’m like, ‘dude, this is a voter registration card!'”

Holly Smith, a Portland Community College student and registered Democrat, had a similar reaction.

“That is not cool,” she said. “I am going to get it back.”

Many of the petitioners either refused to comment or insisted that the voter registration cards were just for verification purposes.

One petitioner, however, who would not give his name, confirmed that the group’s intention was to file the voter registration cards with “Republican” checked under the party affiliation.

“I can’t be held responsible,” the petitioner said, when asked if he thought his registration method might be misleading.

Another petitioner, standing between Smith Memorial Student Union and Neuberger Hall, said that he worked for a company called “West Coast Management,” and said that the group and the petition was non-partisan. The man also said that the petition was a “ballot measure,” but that he didn’t know when it would be on the ballot.

Another petitioner later explained that the petition is not a ballot measure, but instead a letter that will be sent to the secretary of state.

A petitioner who identified himself as “Ben Over” said that he was employed by a group called “Voters for All,” but shouted “I hate Democrats, man,” as the reporter walked away.

No information could be found on either West Coast Management or Voters for All in searches of the internet, telephone directories or business listings.

The petitioners also gave conflicting accounts of how they were being paid for their work. One man said that he was paid hourly, not per signature or per card, but another man told a Vanguard photographer that he made $10 per card.

Two of the petitioners, including the one who identified as “Ben Over,” requested money from Vanguard reporters in exchange for information (both requests were refused).

The group’s actions, while misleading, are not illegal unless they are telling people that they must register Republican, according to Anne Martens, chief of communications for Secretary of State Bill Bradbury.

“I know it doesn’t pass the smell test,” Martens said. “The problem is that they’re not breaking any laws.”

Until a law is put on the books, the group is free to say practically whatever they want while petitioning, she added.

However, Kansager said that the petitioners asked her to initial by “Republican” on the registration form, and petitioners were witnessed asking other students to do the same.

John Wykoff, executive director of the Oregon Students Association (OSA), who was out in the Park Blocks working for OSA’s voter registration campaign, tried to blow the whistle on the petitioning group.

“What they are trying to do is get people to register Republican because they get paid for the cards,” Wykoff said. “You don’t have to sign a voter registration card to sign a petition.”

When Wykoff stood by the petitioners and attempted to tell people that they did not have sign the registration cards, the group told a Campus Public Safety officer that Wykoff was saying racial epithets at them.

Wykoff, who was then asked by the officer to move to a different part of the block, said that it was the petitioners who were calling him names.

“They were calling me ‘queer,’ Wykoff said.

When asked about the incident, the petitioners’ only comment was, “that’s just those Democrats over there.”

— Christian Gaston, Josie Mulberry, and Amy Sly contributed reporting to this article