North Dakota Investigation Implicates Petition Fraud

Paid contractors have been charged with falsifying signatures for two ballot initiatives.
by | September 7, 2012

Nearly 25,000 signatures submitted to place two initiatives on North Dakota’s November ballot were fraudulent, according to a state investigation, raising questions about the widespread practice of contracting out signature-gathering for ballot petitions.

Both groups behind the petitions—one would have created a state conservation fund; the other would have legalized medical marijuana—hired outside help to collect signatures for the petitions. But an investigation by the state bureau of investigation found that more than 17,000 of the 37,785 signatures for the conservation fund initiative and more than 7,000 of the 20,092 signatures for the medical marijuana initiatives were falsified.

Because of the invalidated signatures, neither petition earned enough support to appear on the November ballot. Jaeger’s office has charged 10 individuals for facilitating voter fraud or filing a false statement, Class A misdemeanors that could result in a yearlong prison sentence or up to $2,000 in fines. As in most other states, those filing petition signatures in North Dakota are required to sign an affidavit swearing that they witnessed the signatures and that they are genuine.

“Petition fraud is an affront to the election process and to all citizens, and particularly to those who legitimately signed the petitions hoping to have these measures placed on the ballot,” said North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in a statement announcing the investigation’s findings. “That’s why it’s essential that these allegations are investigated and violations prosecuted.”

The conversation group hired Terra Strategies, a Des Moines, Iowa, firm that specializes in grassroots campaigns. The medical marijuana group contracted with specific individuals, Dave Schwartz, its executive director, tells Governing. State investigators noted that “several individuals” were charged in connection with both petitions. Eight of those charged were members of the North Dakota State University football team, according to the Bismarck Tribune.

Requests for comments from Terra Strategies and attorneys for individuals charged in the investigation were not immediately returned.

The sheer amount of labor required to collect thousands of signatures across dozens of locations in a large state led to the medical marijuana group’s decision to hire outsiders to do some of the leg work for them, says Schwartz, who added he’s seen similar tactics employed when he worked on a marijuana petition in Nevada. His organization found individuals through word of mouth, held interviews to ensure they understood their responsibilities and paid them $12 to $18 per hour to gather signatures. North Dakota is one of at least seven states to explicitly forbid petition circulators from being paid by the signature, according to Ballotpedia.

“It’s not unusual at all. We didn’t have any indications prior that there would be a problem,” Schwartz says. “This is the first thing I’ve experienced anything like this.”

For better or worse, paid petition circulators have become an integral part of getting an initiative on the ballot in many states, says Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California-Irvine and recognized expert on election law.

“In many places, they are the only way to get things on the ballot,” he says. “These kinds of things (as happened in North Dakota) do happen, although they’re the exception, not the rule. Most companies are very careful to avoid fraud because they’re in the business to make money.”

Perhaps because of their growing prevalence, paid petition circulators have come under greater scrutiny. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker lambasted his opponents for alleging using paid employees to gather signatures in his recall efforts last year, according to local reports.

Petition fraud was also a hot topic in California in 2011. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have banned the pay-per-signature model, legislation that was spurred by a Secretary of State report that recounted 33 convictions for petition fraud from 1994 to 2010, according to Ballotpedia. Opponents of the bill argued that, spread over 16 years, that number of convictions didn’t represent a high enough level of fraud to warrant the change.

It remains to be seen if the North Dakota controversy leads that state or others to revisit their policies toward paid petition circulators. As for the activists whose efforts were stymied by the fraud, they said they are exploring all options, including legal action against those they originally hired to aid their effort.

“It’s extremely frustrating. I was dumbfounded when I found out,” Schwartz says. “It’s a real violation of the democratic process.”

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