Signature Issue

Arizona's real voter-fraud problem doesn't have anything to do with people casting votes

Chris Roads, Pima County's registrar of voters, noticed something very strange when he was reviewing new voter-registration forms a few years back: Dozens of forms were coming from a handful of apartment complexes.

"If you're doing a voter-registration drive, and you get every single human being in an apartment complex, you have done a miraculous job," Roads says. "That just doesn't happen."

On top of that, the forms had very similar handwriting.

"It looked to us like three or four people had created all those forms," Roads says.

Roads drove out to one of the apartment complexes to find out if any of the people actually existed. In a brief conversation with the apartment manager, he discovered that not a single one of the forms represented a real resident.

Roads knew the forms were coming from an organization that was running a voter-registration drive, so he turned the case over to County Attorney Barbara LaWall. Although the organization turned in about 1,100 bogus registration forms, Roads says that LaWall's office couldn't find enough evidence to successfully prosecute the case.

During election season, Roads often sees cases of phony voter-registration forms, although few are that blatant. In one case, a prisoner in the Pima County Jail had been hired to register voters as his work-release job. Roads soon learned that the man, who had to submit a minimum number of forms to keep his job, was registering his fellow prisoners every morning as they gathered before leaving jail for the day. The tip-off was the number of convicted felons who were registering to vote.

"One guy submitted six different forms over six different days," Roads says. "That's six felony offenses."

State and federal law require Roads and the staff at the Pima County Recorder's Office to enter every new voter-registration form into the rolls unless there is reason to believe a form is not legitimate; in those cases, they can investigate through the Motor Vehicle Division or another government agency to check the validity of the form.

Once a name is in the computer, the Recorder's Office has to send multiple letters out to the alleged address as part of the process to determine whether the voter really exists. All of that costs money in staff time and mailings (along with the occasional legal investigation; Roads estimates the case with the apartment complexes cost more than $10,000, when the county attorney's time is factored in).

Sometimes the voter-registration efforts are pushed by political parties looking to increase their numbers, but they're often the result of initiative campaigns that pay people per signature to fill up petitions. Occasionally, the people gathering the signatures find it easier to fill out phony voter-registration forms and then put those fake names on petitions.

Roads says dealing with those fraudulent forms is a much bigger problem than catching people who are trying to influence the outcome of an election.

"We don't have a huge issue here of people trying to run from polling place to polling place to vote over and over again," Roads says. "Not to say we haven't had it happen--but they always get caught. To me, the registration fraud is much bigger problem for the taxpayer."

Rep. Phil Lopes, a Democrat who represents Tucson's westside, has co-sponsored a bill that would ban companies from paying petition-passers per signature. Instead, House Bill 2587 would require that they be paid an hourly wage.

Lopes says he sponsored the bill because of "the whole debacle" over two initiatives last year that ran into trouble. The TIME initiative, which would have raised the sales tax by a penny per dollar to pay for transportation improvements, and an initiative to reform state-trust-land laws were booted from the ballot after a check by Maricopa County officials resulted in roughly 40 percent of the signatures being disqualified.

"It was pretty obvious to me that the root of those problems was that they had people out there who they were paying by signature," Lopes says. "(Gov. Jan) Brewer said, when she was secretary of state, that it was like they were copying stuff out of the phone book."

Signatures for the state-trust-land and TIME initiatives were collected by Petition Partners, a Maricopa County-based company. Andrew Chavez, who owns Petition Partners, could not be reached for comment on his status as the poster boy for faulty signature gathering.

But Pete Zimmerman, a local political consultant who has done petition drives in the past, says that the law doesn't need to be changed, because bad actors "get discovered, and they get terminated. Clients don't want to pay for invalid signatures."

Zimmerman says the very nature of the business makes it difficult to pay people by the hour. There is little supervision of signature gatherers, who typically work their own hours at various locations where they expect a steady flow of people.

Zimmerman predicts that forcing initiative organizers to pay by the hour would drive up the cost of doing an initiative campaign.

"You'd have to assign people particular locations and times during the week, and have some supervisors running around making sure they were doing their job," Zimmerman says.

In some circumstances, Zimmerman adds, it would make it almost impossible to do an initiative drive.

"It would favor special interests more, because they could afford the increased cost better than people who are less well-heeled," Zimmerman says. "It could make it prohibitive. I have no idea how much it would add to the cost of a petition drive to have supervisors, of course. And maybe that's not the only answer."

Lopes concedes that his bill probably would hamstring initiative efforts, but he says it might not be as bad as Zimmerman predicts. He thinks that it might improve the quality of the signature gatherers.

"Maybe we need to have people of more confidence," Lopes says.

Lopes' bill made it through the House Government Committee on an 8-0 vote, but stalled when it couldn't get a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. He says he still hopes to resurrect the legislation this session.

Sen. Jonathan Paton, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he opposes HB 2587, because it is "too regulatory."

"We don't need to crack down on the free market," Paton says. "We need to crack down on fraud."

Paton says he is now talking with Secretary of State Ken Bennett's office about an alternative reform package.

Roads hopes to see something similar to Lopes' bill comes back to life before the end of the session.

"I think it would reduce the problem,"

Roads says. "It takes away the incentive to cheat."

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