Union watchdog group asks for initiative review

Union watchdog group asks for initiative review

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - A union-funded watchdog group has asked the state to investigate whether signatures on initiative petitions circulated by conservative activists were forged.

Meanwhile, the conservative activists have gone to federal court to force the state to ease or overturn new restrictions on petitions and paid signature-gatherers.

Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, who oversees the state Elections Division, has been caught in the middle of the battle.

The complaint filed this week by the watchdog group Our Oregon alleges that at least four signatures, including Ellen Clay of Keizer, were forged on initiative petitions for the current election cycle.

"It kind of looks like my signature, but it was probably traced," Clay told the Statesman Journal. "I think my signature was simply copied over from another sheet."

Our Oregon spokesman Scott Moore told the Salem newspaper the watchdog group wants a review by the Elections Division, which can refer it to the Department of Justice for a full investigation and prosecution.

Voters approved a ban in 2002 on paying petition circulators based on each signature they obtained. The ban was challenged but upheld in state and federal courts.

The 2007 Legislature further tightened restrictions in a law that took effect Jan. 1.

Conservative activists lost their legal challenge against the new signature-gathering restrictions Jan. 9 in Marion County Circuit Court. But they hope to fare better in a similar suit in U.S. District Court.

The law requires paid petition circulators to register in advance, obtain photo identification, submit a signature sample, and undergo training provided by the Elections Division.

It also requires their employers to keep more extensive employment records, which can be checked by the state.

Voters, rather than circulators, must print names and submit other information on petition sheets.

Clay said she signed some petitions offered by the circulator, but not an initiative sponsored by Bill Sizemore to link teacher pay and seniority rights to classroom performance.

A jury awarded the two largest teachers' unions in Oregon $2.5 million in 2002 after they filed an anti-racketeering lawsuit against Sizemore, claiming he used forgery and fraud to qualify two anti-union ballot measures in 2000.

Clay said the latest Sizemore initiative - and Sizemore himself - are not popular in her family, which has several teachers.

"The circulator asked me about that one and I clearly remember saying no," Clay said.

She said the signature on the petition was dated Dec. 28, a few days before the new restrictions took effect.

Clay said the handwriting on the rest of the signature line, including her printed name and address, was definitely not hers - a practice barred under the law now in effect.

In fact, sponsors of nine of 10 initiatives for the November 2008 ballot submitted the bulk of their signatures before the law took effect. Five have qualified, two were disqualified, and two are awaiting verification of final signatures submitted under the new restrictions July 3.

The exception is the initiative for a top-two primary, sponsored by two of Bradbury's predecessors, Democrat Phil Keisling and Republican Norma Paulus. They submitted all of their signatures under the new law, the first batch on May 23 and the final batch on July 3.

"In other words, most all of the initiatives Oregon voters will decide this fall got there through practices that are now illegal," Bradbury said. "But those practices were legal at the time most of the signatures were submitted."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)