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Suit Targets Verification of Initiative Signatures

July 15, 1986|KIM MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

The failure of a campaign reform initiative to qualify for the November ballot has prompted its promoters and Common Cause of California to challenge the state's procedures for verifying signatures on initiative petitions, alleging that "hundreds of thousands" of qualified voters' signatures are being routinely rejected.

In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, the public interest lobby and Californians to Limit Campaign Spending said they hired a prominent signature-gathering firm and turned in 631,000 signatures, nearly 200,000 more than the number needed to qualify the ballot measure.

Yet the measure failed to qualify, and Common Cause executive director Walter Zelman and a major public interest law firm claim it was because local registrars are not thorough enough in checking signatures to determine whether they come from qualified registered voters.

Common Cause volunteers said they examined dozens of signatures rejected by local registrars' clerks and found that the largest counties in the state have consistently undercounted the number of signatures of qualified registered voters--in some cases by 25%.

Registration Checked

Most often, they said, signatures are rejected because a name on the petition does not precisely match the one on the voter's affidavit of registration.

Declarations filed with the court show, for example, that a woman who signed a petition as "Mrs. Robert X" was registered to vote as "Mary X," and was disqualified. A "Joe G." on the petition was registered as "Jose G." and disqualified. (The court documents did not identify the voters by full last name to protect their privacy.)

"Ron J.'s" signature was disqualified because there was no "Ron J." listed on the voter rolls. There was, however, a "Ronald J." listed at the same address. One man's signature was disqualified because an assistant registrar said it was "difficult to read," the declarations said.

Common Cause officials who looked at signatures in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Bernardino, Orange, Contra Costa and Alameda counties on a recently disqualified medical malpractice victims' initiative said they found error rates ranging from 12% to 25%--signatures that had been disqualified but clearly had matches on the voter rolls.

Registrars in Los Angeles and Orange counties, where Common Cause said some of the highest error rates were found, have disputed the findings, saying they take every precaution to determine if a signature is valid before ruling it out. But in some cases, the Common Cause volunteers said they were aided by local registrars in their check of signatures, and the registrars agreed with the Common Cause findings.

"Since most registrars check for names of registered voters on microfiche, or by computer, a minor misreading of a name on the petition may lead to the signature's disqualification," Zelman told the court.

"When signatures or printed names are hard to read, mistakes are commonplace. If these names were also cross-checked with the address listing, they would readily be found. Yet most registrars, while sometimes claiming that they check street addresses in all or most cases in which a computer or microfiche does not reveal a name, are not really doing so," Zelman said.

Al E. Olson, registrar in Orange County, which had the highest alleged error rate at 25%, said he was "very skeptical" of the findings and said clerks typically make exhaustive checks of signatures that aren't initially found through a microfiche check of registrations, including checks by address.

Matter of Timing

For Common Cause, the issue is not only one of principle, but of timing: The secretary of state's finding that the random sample projected a validity rate of only 100.2% (short of the 110% needed to put the measure on the ballot without a full verification of all signatures) means that the measure, if qualified later on the full count, will have to wait until the June, 1988, ballot--by which time the "momentum" of the campaign reform issue will have subsided, Zelman claims.

But attorneys for the Center for Law and the Public Interest, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit law firm, said there are broader public issues at stake.

"It really is a disturbing problem to think that so many people are losing the effects of their vote simply because somebody is too lazy or too rushed to look up their address," attorney Fred Woocher said.

"It hasn't been that much of a problem in the past, because people typically say the validity rate is only going to be about 70%, so we'll just collect enough signatures to get over that hump. That's fine for the people who can afford to do that--they basically compensate for the errors of the clerks. But it defeats the whole purpose of the initiative process if it becomes (a matter) of who can spend more money," Woocher said.

Locally Handled

Melissa Warren, spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office, said procedures for verifying signatures are essentially left to local registrars in individual counties.

Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Charles Weissburd, also named in the suit, said he "can't believe" the error rate allegedly found by Common Cause volunteers.

"We check over a million signatures a year, and our people . . . go to whatever lengths we have to to verify signatures. We double-check, triple-check and quadruple-check," he said. "I'm more interested in qualifying than not qualifying these petitions."

Superior Court Judge Warren Deering on Monday scheduled a July 30 hearing on the issue, but he refused to issue an immediate order to keep a holding place on the November ballot for the campaign reform initiative.

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