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WHEN YOUR SIGNATURE DOSEN'T COUNT
By Bill Sizemore
April 4, 2003
Did you vote in the last election? Did you sign a petition to help put on the ballot some issue you really cared about? You might think you know the answer to those questions, but you very well might be wrong.
You see, you can claim you signed a petition or cast a ballot. You might be able to prove you did. You can even swear under oath that you did. But truth is, according to Oregon Secretary of State, you only signed a petition or cast a ballot, if the county clerk says you did.
Hold on, you say. If I voted, I voted. If I signed a petition, I signed. Thatís not the way it works in Oregon. According to the Secretary of State, if a county employee at the local elections office, a staff person with no expertise in handwriting analysis, says your signature on a petition or on your vote-by-mail ballot doesnít look like the signature on your voter registration card, your signature doesnít count and your vote doesnít count. Youíre out. Youíre disenfranchised. You might as well have not bothered.
Your constitutional right to vote and your right to petition your government by initiative is simply tossed into the trashcan.
My experience with Oregonís Secretary of State these past months has been a real eye-opener. An initiative I sponsored, a proposal to stop unions from deducting political funds from employeesí paychecks without first getting the employeeís authorization, was kept off the ballot because the Secretary of State, who opposed my measure, determined that I fell 531 signatures short of the required 89,048 valid signatures.
However, after the Secretary of State declared that I didnít have enough valid signatures, (I had collected about 50,000 more than were required.) I analyzed his calculations and found that local county clerks had invalidated more than 4,800 signatures, simply because in their opinions, the signatures on the petitions didnít match the signersí voter registration cards. These signatures were called ďNo MatchĒ signatures.
Bear in mind that the local election clerks are not experts in handwriting analysis. Bear in mind that many voters registered to vote decades ago and their signatures have changed over the years and may not look at all like the signature they long ago affixed to their voter registration card. Bear in mind that people often sign petitions while holding a shaky clipboard in one hand and a child or bag of groceries under their other arm. None of that matters. Neither does that fact that none of us sign our names exactly the same any two times.
In Oregon, if the county clerk says the signature on the petition doesnít match the voter registration card, the signature doesnít count.
Of course, the question that immediately springs to mind is: If itís not really the voterís signature on the petition, who really signed it? After all, itís either a genuine signature or itís a forgery. Right?
We decided to find out. We began contacting people whose signatures were invalidating for not matching their voter registration cards. We spent two weeks contacting people all across Oregon. In all our searching, we failed to find a single person on the ďNo MatchĒ list, who claimed the signature on the petition wasnít theirs. Every person said the signature was indeed theirs. In fact, during the process we obtained enough sworn, notarized affidavits from signers, swearing that the signatures on the petitions were indeed theirs, to prove in court that we had enough signatures to make the ballot. We even had a thousand signatures or so to spare.
Remember though, the Secretary of State, a liberal Democrat who receives large campaign donations from public sector unions strongly opposed our measure. It was no surprise, therefore, that he refused to accept or even look at the sworn affidavits. He chose rather to place the opinion of a non-expert, county elections employee over the sworn testimony of the actual signers.
Alas, we took the case to court. Surely, we would find justice there. Surely a judge would recognize that an affidavit sworn by the person who actually signed the petition would outweigh the mere opinion of a county employee with no experience in handwriting analysis.
To insure that justice would be served, in addition to the sworn affidavits, we produced for the judge testimony by a real expert in handwriting analysis, that more than a thousand rejected petition signatures were so close to the signatures on the voters' registration cards that even a novice should have been able to tell it was signed by the same person.
The Secretary of State, aided by the Attorney General, another liberal Democrat who receives large donations from the public sector unions, objected to the expertís testimony as irrelevant; claiming instead that county clerks have the statutory right to make mistakes. The Marion Country judge agreed.
Justice meant nothing. Constitutional rights meant nothing. The judge simply dismissed the case and kept our measure off the ballot, ruling that state statutes give the clerks the final authority to decide if a signature is valid, and proving that they were wrong is irrelevant.
In other words, even though the evidence was clear that we had enough signatures to qualify our initiative for the ballot with more than a thousand signatures to spare, the Secretary of State has the right to keep the measure off the ballot, if he wants to. And he wanted to.
In summary, what I discovered in this process should shock and dismay even my most liberal opponents. My measure was kept off the ballot, even though I clearly had enough signatures to qualify under the Oregon Constitution. What was done with my measure was a violation of the constitutional right of every single person who signed my petition. It was a violation of the right of every Oregon voter who was deprived of their right to vote on my ballot measure, but never had the chance. It was a blow to all those workers who have money taken out of their paychecks to fund some union political cause they don't personally support.
What measures will the next secretary of state oppose? Maybe the next secretary will be a conservative and abuse his position to keep a liberal measure off the ballot. Who knows. Either way, itís wrong. It's immoral. It's un-American.
The problem doesnít end with initiatives, though, It extends to actual votes that are cast by mail, including votes cast by absentee ballot. Local elections officials have the authority to nullify the ballots of voters whose signatures on their absentee or mail-in ballot do not appear to match their voter registration card.
This is a big deal. This is a sacred area they're messing in. If this policy isnít reversed, close elections, whether local or statewide, could be decided not by the votes cast for or against a candidate or measure, but by untrained county clerks who arbitrarily reject vote-by-mail or absentee ballot signatures as not matching.
After discovering what the elections employees were doing with the signatures on my initiative petitions, I decided to ask officials at the state elections office how this arbitrary policy was applied to actual ballots on Election Day. ďHow many ballots are not counted because some untrained clerk at the local level says the signatures donít match," I asked. Their answer: The policy is essentially the same with signatures on ballots. We ignore the entire ballot if a local clerk says the signatures donít look the same.
When I asked how many ballots were nullified for this reason in the last election, they replied that they donít know. They had never checked. Or at least that's what they said.
Surely, they ought to know. We all ought to know; especially since the current United States presidency was determined by less than 600 votes in one state. Judging by the number of signatures rejected on my petition, where they only examined a few thousand signatures, the number of actual ballots rejected could run into the tens of thousands.
So you think you voted in the last election. Well, maybe you did. And then again, maybe you didnít. Maybe your signature didnít look the same to some low level clerk at the county elections office. Maybe they recognized you as one of those voters who always votes Republican and simply decided that your signature didnít look quite right and tossed it aside.
After all, what they say about elections is true: Itís not those who vote who decide elections, but those who count the votes. And you thought that was only in third world dictatorships.
© 2003 Bill Sizemore - All Rights Reserved
Bill Sizemore is a registered Independent who
works as executive director of the Oregon Taxpayers Union, a statewide
taxpayer organization. Bill was the Republican candidate for governor
in 1998. He and his wife Cindy have four children, ages eight to thirteen,
and live on 36 acres in Beavercreek, just southeast of Oregon City, Oregon.
"In Oregon, if the county clerk says the signature on the petition doesnít match the voter registration card, the signature doesnít count."