5/6/08

Voter-blockers provided by union front-group

Ken McKoy, a veteran political activist and African-American pastor, would never dream of adding his name to a petition seeking to curb affirmative action in Missouri. But that's exactly what he nearly did when approached recently by a signature gatherer in the Delmar Loop, who pitched the proposal as a push to end discrimination.

"He looked like a progressive — he had tattoos, he had an earring, he may have had a mohawk," McKoy said of the petitioner. "He seemed like a left-wing hippie type guy. And he almost got me."

Welcome to Missouri's wild and largely unregulated petition gathering season, which culminates Sunday as more than two dozen groups are due to submit signatures to the state on issues ranging from gambling limits to eminent domain.

With petitions having become an increasingly popular way to get issues before voters, the practice has been met by critics who say the process favors groups with deep pockets and is ripe for abuse.

Signature collectors sometimes present voters with two or three petitions at a time, making it confusing for voters to know which one they are signing. Even the names can be potentially deceiving — an effort to rescind the spending limits at casinos mentions schools, but not gambling.

Though conceived as a grass-roots way for citizens to take issues directly to voters, collecting signatures on some measures has also become a big business. Well-funded organizations can contract with firms who, for a hefty fee, will guarantee ballot access. Individual signature gatherers are sometimes paid $1 or more for a name.

States elsewhere have sought to crack down on petition circulators, either by limiting the time organizers have to collect names or making it illegal to pay by the signature. Now, some say, it's time to clean up the process in Missouri.

"The ballot initiative goes to the heart of the democratic process — we need to make sure it is not being abused," said state Rep. Rachel Storch, D-St. Louis.

'SONG AND DANCE'

About half of the states in the United States allow citizens to petition for ballot access. In Missouri, to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot requires at least 130,000 signatures, which must be spread from throughout the state.

This year, the secretary of state approved 25 initiative petitions for signature collection, up from 11 in 2004. The petition process has its roots in Progressive Era populism, and there are still issues — such as the push in Missouri for a ballot item encouraging renewable energy — that are largely volunteer-driven.

For other interest groups, the petition has emerged as a way to bypass the Legislature.

The state's casinos, for instance, have paid over $195,000 to a Michigan firm — National Petition Management Inc. — to collect signatures that would rescind the state's $500 loss limit.

"It's pay to play," said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University who has studied the effect of initiative petitions.

The process also can be easily manipulated by those who peddle the petitions, Donovan says. One trick: Using a clipboard to cover the part of the petition that tells voters what they are actually endorsing.

"There are professionals out there who know how to play the game," Donovan said. "Even when they are doing things legally, they have a song and dance."

FIERCE BATTLES

In the absence of strict regulations, those on both sides of contentious ballot issues in Missouri have taken to policing each other's tactics.

The result: a rhetorical battle playing out in front of voters at popular signature-gathering spots such as post offices, libraries and government buildings.

This spring, the fiercest battles erupted over a measure to ban affirmative action.

A group of volunteers and paid canvassers have mobilized against the initiative, which is similar to ones in other states that have generated complaints about deceptive petition tactics.

Critics here say even the initiative's name — the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative — is misleading and may fool some people who don't realize it would ban affirmative action programs backed by the state and local government.

The liberal-leaning group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, has deployed crews of workers at $8 an hour to make sure people know what they are signing, even if it means being assertive about spreading their view.

"I like to call it being pleasantly persistent," said ACORN organizer Jackie Tyler.

Tyler said her workers were educating voters. The opposition has another name for them: "blockers."

Last week, Tyler and a crew of about 20 ACORN workers dispersed through the region, responding to a hot line where people can call to report sightings of signature gatherers.

One of those tips led her to the Maryland Heights Post Office, where she saw a petition gatherer juggling about six yellow and blue clipboards attracting a small crowd.

Armed with a pile of yellow fliers that say "Think before you ink!" Tyler tried to approach voters, warning the affirmative action petition would harm women and minorities.

The signature collector, David Ulmo, a furniture salesman from Kansas City, had a yellow flier of his own to counter Tyler's.

"Please ignore these paid 'blockers' who use thug tactics and intimidation to stop you from signing," his flier read. "Don't be bullied into walking away."

Later, Tyler laughed at Ulmo's flyer. It will make it onto a dartboard back at the office, she said.

SECOND THOUGHTS

Tim Asher, who is leading the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative, said critics who accused them of deceptive practices lacked evidence to back their claims. "I've never heard anyone misrepresent the issue," he said.

The local and national offices for National Ballot Access — the Georgia company hired to collect signatures for the anti-affirmative action drive — did not return numerous phone calls.

The affirmative action petition, however, is not the only effort generating complaints in Missouri.

Dave Maus, a retired salesman from Oakville, said a young woman approached him about two weeks ago with the casinos petition. He recalled her saying the measure would raise $105 million for schools.

It wasn't until he got home that he realized the initiative would also do away with wagering caps and limit the number of casinos in the state.

"I know we should always read a petition, and that's nobody's fault but my own," he said.

According to the Missouri secretary of state's office, 15 voters have submitted an affidavit asking that their names be removed from a petition — 14 on the affirmative-action push, and one on the casino petition.

Anne Marie Moy, a spokeswoman for the casino effort, defended the title of the ballot campaign — "Yes for Schools First" — as accurate. The proposal would raise the amount of casino taxes — to 21 percent from 20 percent — dedicated for education. "I don't think it's deceptive," Moy said. "I think it very clearly states the most important thing that the initiative is going to accomplish."

The secretary of state's office will hold special weekend hours Sunday to accept all of the petition signatures due by 5 p.m. The group backing the casino measure says it has already handed in needed signatures.

If signatures on the various measures are approved as valid, the issues will go before voters on Nov. 4.

At the Capitol, though, there is a move to further regulate signature gathering in the state. Storch has authored a bill that would prohibit signature companies from paying by the name, a law in effect in Wyoming, North Dakota and Oregon.

"I think that the last few election cycles have demonstrated that this business of initiative petitions has become a serious one," Storch said.

One person who hopes the state does not curb signature gathering is Paul Lashley, a freelance petitioner who has collected names on issues from animal cruelty to billboard regulations over the last dozen years.

Does he misrepresent an issue? Never, he claims. Does he put his own spin on it to help signatures? Maybe.

"I never say a lie," Lashley said. "Of course, you put a light on things."

Lashley, 53, said that he didn't necessarily believe in every issue he pushed, but that he did think they deserved a place on the ballot.

Said Lashley: "I believe in the democratic process."

(stltoday.com)

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