In 2008, a former state senator, known as Mr. Initiative for the initiatives that he successfully put on the ballot, ran for the state Senate. He was not only bounced off the ballot for petition fraud, he was convicted. Over 60 percent of his signatures were found to be forged.
When was he most likely to have committed signature fraud? When he needed 1,400 signatures for a Senate seat? Or, when he needed 170,000 signatures for an initiative? Where did he learn the bad habits that led him to believe he could get away with that ratio of fraud?
The answer seems to be obvious.
In 2016, I examined one of the destructive initiatives. With the signature deadline looming, I visited over 40 different places where signatures might be gathered: libraries, motor vehicle offices, two different festivals, Bashas’ stores and a farmer’s market. Only three spots had signature gatherers. Past mid-day each of these had less than 100 signatures. Not one branch library had a circulator, the place where I had gathered the overwhelming majority of my signatures as a candidate.
How in the world could they be picking up the required signatures with so few circulators in the field, I wondered?
At opening time of Phoenix main library, 86 people stood waiting for the doors to open. There was a petition circulator at the library. Of the 86 people waiting, he captured only four of their signatures. A quick mathematical calculation of four out of 86 gathering rate reveals an astronomical number of people that had to be asked for the initiative to make the ballot.
A return to the library at 4 p.m. that day revealed a grand total of 27 signatures by three different circulators.
I even fanned out to Post Offices where you aren’t supposed to gather signatures, but are good places to get them till you get chased away. Nope, not a single gatherer.
Then, I hit a sample of Bashas’ stores, which are one of the few stores that will allow signature gathering. Not a single petition gatherer.
I then visited the headquarters of the petition gathering company for that particular initiative. They had a big sign saying that they only accepted signatures during a limited time during the day. So, I returned the next day – 10 minutes before their cash window opened. I expected to see a beehive of activity as petition gatherers came in from the field to deposit their signatures and get money.
Not a single gatherer came during the times laid out on the sign. Not one.
The stories in the Arizona Capitol Times about signature fraud are like the stories of really dumb crooks. The real problem is the smart ones.
What would a smart petition fraud likely look like?
They have massive banks of digitized legitimate signatures, collected over many election cycles. This means that they are completely aware of which signatures are forged because they would regard real signatures as precious assets for their signature bank. If they are smart, and they likely are, they have keypunched these signatures and cross referenced them against post office files to eliminate voters who have moved out of state. But, perhaps not, in which case upwards of 7 percent of their signatures will consist of out-of-state signatures. Clear frauds.
What would the logistics of this fraud operation look like? Once entities have databases of real signatures accumulated over several election cycles, forging signatures from real signatures is not a complex or highly detectable maneuver. Just a visit out to the internet quickly shows this.
In other words, if you have copies of legitimate signatures, very good forgery is easy.
The investigation to reveal all this looks very different than what is being described in terms of scrutiny of these signatures. It should start with a simple phone call to a sample of the voters to see if they signed the petition and, where were they when they signed, cross referenced against others on the same sheet. They should sample the bottom five signatures on each page separately from the first five signatures, particularly on full pages or perhaps only on full pages.
They should compare the number of signatures that collectors claim to have been paid for with the number of signatures collected under their name.
The attorney general should get to the bottom of this mess.
— John Huppenthal served as state superintendent of public instruction from 2011 to 2014 and served in the Arizona Legislature from 1993 to 2010.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.