On July 6, when several ballot initiative groups turned in the required number of signatures, most were surprised as the various groups seemed to be running behind in gathering their signatures.
But as a second group has been struck down with a whopping 70 percent failure rate, it seems that these groups very well may have turned in pages of signatures they knew were invalid in an effort to buy more time to collect additional signatures and in doing so may have even committed a crime.
Citizens are able to put measures before voters using the provisions provided in the Arkansas State Constitution Article 5 Section 1 by obtaining signatures from 8 percent of voters from the last gubernatorial election for a ballot initiative (62,507 this year) or 10 percent for a constitutional amendment (78,134 this year).
The deadline for turning this in was July 6 – four months before election day – however, if the Secretary of State determines that they do not have enough valid signatures then they have an additional 30 days from the time that determination is made to collect more signatures.
Yesterday, a group pushing for an increase in the Arkansas severance tax on natural gas was told that they only had 21,347 valid signatures out of 69,774 submitted. This is an invalidation rate of around 70 percent. Common sense would tell you that such a high rate indicates that those turning in the signatures knew many of them were invalid.
Copies of the petition pages obtained by The Tolbert Report from the Secretary of State's office under a document request support this claim. Several pages – which can be seen here – show pages of the petition all written in the same handwriting. One page is signed in what appears to the be the same handwriting with signatures in the last name of Rogers from Blytheville. Another page, also in what appears to be the same handwriting, has an alphabetical listing from Wells through West.
Sheffield Nelson, who is leading the effort to raise the severance tax, even admitted yesterday that he believed as many as 40 percent of the signatures were invalid, although he said he was surprised it ended up being 70 percent.
“If they were so bad that they were thrown out on the face of the petition that means somebody knowingly submitted something false,” Nelson told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
The cost of validating these signatures to taxpayers is quite high.
According to the Secretary of State, 35 temporary employees being paid a rate of $9 per hour and an accounting firm – JPMS Cox – at a rate of $89 per hour are being used to handle the validation process. This puts the cost to at least $404 per hour, not considering employment taxes and other internal costs of existing employees. The office estimated it took around three and a half days with employees working 12 hours per day to validate the severance tax petitions.
That puts the cost to the state of at least $17,000 for this process which those turning in the petitions knew would be unsuccessful.
One question is whether or not this was a crime. Arkansas law (ACA 7-9-103(b)) states that “A person shall be deemed guilty of a Cl
ass A misdemeanor if the person:
- Signs any name other than his or her own to any petition;
- Knowingly signs his or her name more than once to any petition;
- Knowingly signs a petition when he or she is not legally entitled to sign it;
- Knowingly and falsely misrepresents the purpose and effect of the petition or the measure affected for the purpose of causing anyone to sign a petition;
- Acting in the capacity of canvasser, knowingly makes a false statement on a petition verification form; or
- Acting in the capacity of a notary, knowingly fails to witness a canvasser's affidavit either by witnessing the signing of the instrument and personally knowing the signer or by being presented with proof of identify of the signer.
A Class A misdemeanor is the most serious misdemeanor class under Arkansas law and is punishable by imprisonment of up to 365 days and/or a fine of $2,500.
In addition under ACA 7-9-109, “a canvasser who knowingly makes a false statement on a petition verification form required by this section shall be deemed guilty of a Class D felony,” which is punishable by imprisonment of up to 6 years and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
It is unknown if charges will be brought in this case. Any state prosecutor could if the crime occurred in his jurisdiction. The likelihood of this seems remote although State Sen. Jason Rapert is calling for an investigation. There is also a question as to who would be guilty of the crime. Would this be limited only to the person who actually falsified the petition signature and/or the canvasser or would it also extend to the individual overseeing the petition drive if they knew this was occurring?
I don't know, but one thing is clear – Nelson knew he did not have enough valid signatures when he submitted them on July 6. He did so anyway to buy his group additional time without any regard to the cost associated to taxpayers.
For this, he owes the state a major apology or better yet a check to reimburse us.
UPDATE – Sheffeld Nelson sends along the following response…
I was disappointed to read your column of July 20. You jumped to a number of erroneous conclusions, and you could have gotten answers to most of your issues by calling me.
First, the people in the industry are the ones who tell you 60% is an expected level of good petitions on such a drive. That is what caused me to state 40% was the worst case scenario in my mind. I honestly expected a much higher percentage, and was shocked when Martha Adcock told me the true figures. If you will refer back to the column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that covered my filing, you will find that I stated that there would be signatures that did not comply.
Secondly, the person conducting the petition drive had several people checking petitions to throw out bad signatures and petitions. The ladies who prepared our petitions for filing with the Secretary of State also threw out obviously bad signatures and petitions.
If you will go to the trouble of calling Martha Adcock, you will find that we did all we could do to present valid signatures. You could find the others primarily by using a program that only they possess.
That is why we got fooled badly, as did the casino group yesterday, when they made a filing with slightly fewer than 30% good signatures.
The people who intentionally falsified the petitions should be prosecuted. Needless to say, that would be a monumental task.