The Voter Education (Eradication) Project
Is Their Goal Education or Elimination of Oregon Votersí Rights?
By Lisa Baker

Voter Education Project. The name conjures visions of dry but noble civics classes, something along the respectable lines of Project Vote Smart. Even the name sounds similar.

Its mission statement comprises a laudable goal: To inform voters and ensure integrity in the initiative process. The organization’s 2001 inaugural campaign, called “Think Before You Ink,” designed to prompt petition signers to read and reflect on a petition before signing it, seemed unobjectionable. The Project’s staff said they were committed to bipartisan goals despite their union roots. They said they would scrutinize all campaigns whether ideologically opposed to the unions’ interests or favoring them.

And the group indeed scrutinized, stopping would-
be signers of petitions to warn them to read the proffered petitions before signing them. And then they went further…

They alerted news media to the fact that some signature gatherers had criminal records–records not associated with election law but nevertheless troubling–and called for campaigns to be accountable for the contractors and subcontractors they hire to gather signatures. They said the system was rife with illegalities and that campaigns were not being held accountable.

Two forgery arrests later, their case seemingly was made.

James Gurga of California and Paul Frankel of Alabama, who gathered signatures in Portland for tax activist and union foe Bill Sizemore, were found guilty of forging signatures on petitions in 2002.

Their arrests were powerful ammunition for VEP backers’ own initiative, Measure 26, which banned per-signature payments to petitioners, a practice the group claimed was the incentive for fraud and forgery in the initiative system.

University academics and newspaper editors exulted in VEP’s activities, saying it was high time someone reined in Oregon’s popular process. Headlines crowned the organization with the title “watchdog group;” one editorial writer for the East Oregonian even wrote, “Thank Goodness for the Voter Education Project.”

With added scrutiny, academics expected the quick and dirty process of signature gathering to become orderly, and more thoughtful.

Now, with two years of operation under VEP’s belt, and a staff of a dozen full-time workers watching various campaigns, many say the result is more in keeping with third-world, banana republic politics than the hoped-for orderly democratic process.

Most campaigns that have circulated petitions in the past year are reporting that VEP members are harassing petitioners, yelling at them, threatening them, even following them in cars.

According to affidavits filed with the Secretary of State’s office, petitioners say they are being mobbed by VEP members. Up to ten at a time surround a lone petitioner, shouting to passers-by that he or she is a “liar” and a fraud.

Ted Piccolo, a former Oregon resident who was chief petitioner for a term limits measure last year, said that on one occasion, a mob of VEP members–each wearing the trademark VEP red shirt--scattered when he appeared with a camera in hand to document the scene. He said he chased one who ran into a building and then came out another door no longer wearing the VEP shirt, which was now sticking out of his hip pocket.

Herb Jenkins, a longtime signature gatherer who owns a security business in Portland, said VEP members “would stand between myself and people trying to sign my petitions and tell them not to sign. They’d see where you were and get on a cell phone and within a half-hour, they had three people in your face, being belligerent.

“I was at the Farmer’s Market on 42nd one day and they grabbed my board and started ripping up my petitions–and they were signed petitions. Now, that’s illegal,” he said. “They told me they were from the Voter Education Project. I called the cops and then I called the lady who was their boss, but nothing happened.”

Well, not nothing. Soon after, the project filed a complaint against Jenkins, who was circulating Sizemore petitions, accusing him of forging signatures. The allegation remains posted on VEP’s website despite the fact that the state has cleared him of the charges.

Jenkins is angry, not just about damage to his reputation, but because VEP took credit for the capture of Gurga and Frankel even though it was Jenkins who originally reported them. An account of the men’s activities, based on Jenkins’ observations, was sent via fax on October 29, 2001, according to elections officials. A follow-up letter signed by Jenkins was sent on Oct. 31. Union officials’ letter was signed on Nov. 5 and received by the Elections Division the same day–likely hand-delivered, according to Norma Buckno, elections compliance officer. Jenkins says, “I told them what was going on and then VEP took credit for all of it.”

Lloyd Marbett, who was circulating an initiative for campaign finance reform last election season, said VEP personnel “were a problem” for his signature gatherers. “The reports sounded like harassment, kind of a physical intimidation. They would wear these red shirts and surround people who were petitioning, basically attempting to try and stop people from petitioning,” he says. “Now, I believe in freedom of speech, but not in freedom of harassment.”

Marbett’s co-petitioner, Dan Meek, said workers for his measure reported that Voter Education Project representatives dismantled a display about the initiative, grabbed signature sheets from collectors and told passers-by that the measure was “a fraud…Don’t sign it.”

The income tax surcharge referendum has drawn similar action in recent weeks.

Aaron Johnson, manager of an AM-PM Minimart in west Eugene, says he’s been under fire since he chose to make the referendum petition available at his store. On October 21, a man grabbed the petition clipboard out of his hand and then swung it at him, he says. Others filed complaints against him with the Secretary of State’s office, accusing him of various violations of elections law. “I’ve had verbal threats. I’ve had calls at home. You know, we just want to keep a low profile. I’m no activist. It’s just me and my crew decided we can’t afford this tax increase.”

Ross Day, director of legal affairs for Oregonians in Action, said VEP members arrived in a van to bring a halt to referendum petitioning at a Lake Oswego Nature’s store in mid-September. “These union goons jumped out of a van and started shoving the petitioner. He turned in his signatures and quit,” he says.

Paul Farago is circulating an initiative aimed at reviving term limits. He says VEP’s methods are “an extension of picket line tactics–strike tactics–work stoppage tactics. If you’ve ever been involved in a labor dispute, you’ve seen it before.”

A national association for protection of initiative rights says that aside from strong-arm tactics, plainclothes VEP members also sign false names to petitions and then later “catch” the petitioner with those same false signatures.

Patty Wentz, former Willamette Week reporter turned spokeswoman for VEP, responds: “They are just making stuff up.”

Wentz says Project workers “don’t engage the petitioners, don’t discuss issues with the petitioners and don’t harass the petitioners. We don’t get close to petitioners, we don’t tell people not to sign. We just educate the public,” she says. “There is no evidence that VEP is harassing petitioners. And if (petitioners) are being harassed, there is no evidence that it’s VEP people. All I can say to them is, prove it.”

Accountability

Chief among VEP’s well-publicized concerns has been what it terms the lack of accountability in initiative campaigns. Chief petitioners hire contractors to gather signatures and care little about the backgrounds or trustworthiness of those doing the work, it says.

Supporting its argument, the VEP in the “Rogues” section of its website posts mug shots of signature gatherers who have criminal records. The offenses, according to VEP, run anywhere from failure to pay child support to assault. A click away, the VEP provides a list of signature gatherers it has accused of forgery, and while some have no criminal records, VEP points out if there’s been a “complaint” against them in the past.

But VEP itself has trouble hiring quality help. Last year, it hired Tracy David Lincoln, 37, of Loomis, California, a former signature gatherer with Progressive Campaigns, a California company that specializes in liberal causes such as repeal of the death penalty. According to Sacramento County District Attorney’s office, Lincoln is the subject of a warrant charging him with contracting without a license in 1998. The state fined him in 1993 for the same offense, but has never been able to find him, according to the state Contractor’s Licensing Board. In addition, he and another man were arrested in July 2000 on a charge of assault after a man was beaten in a California hotel room. The case was subsequently suspended after the charge was not pursued, according to police records.

Lincoln was a high-profile front man for VEP last year, appearing as a spokesman for the group in several news articles that discussed the need for accountability and integrity in campaigns. When asked about Lincoln for this article, Wentz responded, “He doesn’t work for us.” She conceded that Lincoln had worked for the Project last year as a field manager but would not discuss him further.

VEP’s problems don’t end with Lincoln. A petitioner hired to gather signatures for VEP’s own initiative, billed as a way to “eliminate the incentive for forgery,” according to Wentz, by banning per-signature bounties--was caught forging signatures. Rahni Grant, of Democracy Resources of Oregon, was turned in to the Elections Division by his supervisor, Ted Blaszak, according to the complaint.

Grant was being paid by the hour.

Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, chief petitioner for the initiative which became Measure 26 and a VEP board member, said the campaign caught Grant before the signatures were turned in and filed notice of it with the secretary of state’s office, as required. It was an example of true accountability, he said. “He was caught within a day or two. That’s what you can do when you have people reporting back to you–you can catch it quickly. It demonstrates the need for signature gathering operations to have accountability,” he said. “That’s not what was going on in Sizemore’s operation.”

But Nesbitt’s campaign did not file the original complaint against Grant. Bill Sizemore did, according to Elections Division records. Democracy Resources’ complaint was filed later, according to Buckno, of the elections division.

Nesbitt told BrainstormNW that he doesn’t know why an hourly-wage worker would bother forging signatures. “He was being paid by the hour. I guess like any other job you have, there are people who shirk, who are on breaks when they should be working. With a large enough operation, you will run into that.”

Union Tools?

VEP is a good thing.

That’s the way Richard Ellis, political science professor at Willamette University, sees it. While allowing for the Project’s union backing, he says he still believes it can do a fair job of calling all campaigns to account. Voters, he says, are signing petitions without thinking.

He says he doesn’t believe reports of thuggery leveled by VEP’s opponents. Instead, he says it’s simply harder for anyone to get an issue on the ballot and that, he says, “is a good effect.”

Indeed, says VEP’s Wentz, the group is targeting all campaigns regardless of ideology. She rejects the notion that it’s simply a union tool to prevent perceived union enemies from getting their proposals to the ballot. Like the name “Voter Education Project” entails, “we’re an education project,” she says.

While its name sounds similar to Project Vote Smart, a nationally known education group, the two are very different. Vote Smart was founded by two former presidents—one a Democrat and one a Republican—and its staff members and organization are independent from any partisan interest groups.

Voter Education Project was founded by Jeannie Berg, an Oregon union lobbyist who is now VEP’s executive director, was incorporated by representatives of the AFL-CIO, Oregon Public Employees’ Union, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The group’s money—some $550,000 last year in donations, according to its state tax records —comes mostly from public and private union coffers. Board members such as Nesbitt are informed even on such things as middle management personnel changes, he says.

Even so, Wentz says, “we’re pretty independent.”

Nesbitt told BrainstormNW that the Voter Education Project is committed to ensuring that all those who put measures on the ballot are getting there legally. He has denied forming the group to use as a weapon against petitions that could damage unions’ standing. But in speeches to union faithful in the past two years, Nesbitt has talked more about having “taken back the ballot” and having “defeated every measure Sizemore put on the ballot in 2000, all six of them, and kept him off the ballot in 2002,” according to this year’s convention speech.

In 2001, his talk at the AFL-CIO annual convention was about defeating Sizemore’s “vicious” initiatives.

At an Oregon AFL-CIO-sponsored meeting of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center the same year, union presenters suggested “progressives take a more aggressive approach toward chronic right-wing ballot proponents like Tim Eyman (WA), Bill Sizemore (OR), Douglas Bruce (CO), and others by launching all out media, legal, and research assaults on their agenda, credibility, motives, and funders.”

At the event, BISC presenter Kelly Evans encouraged unions to run “signature blocking” campaigns—organized efforts to urge citizens not to sign ballot petitions that would harm progressive interests. She said such efforts “help build and mobilize your base,” and “force your opposition to spend more money or volunteer hours gathering signatures.”

Petitioners from most campaigns said they noticed a definite difference in how VEP treated initiatives that were considered damaging to union interests.

Jim Davis, chief petitioner for a 2002 initiative that would allow denturists to work without referrals from dentists said his group wasn’t targeted by VEP. “They didn’t bother us at all. Mostly they were targeting Sizemore.”

Eddie Agazarm, whose group “Life with Dignity” is circulating a petition in the hopes of further liberalizing the state’s medical marijuana laws, says VEP workers are leaving him alone “because our people are so good.”

Petitioners for universal health care, a proposal favored by unions, also had an easy time of it. Max Wilkins, who circulated the initiative, said VEP members would “hang around and find out what you were pushing…In our group, we’d already met with the AFL-CIO and so they knew about our measure and didn’t target us at all.”

Dan Gardner, the current state labor commissioner who last year was chief petitioner for the union-backed measure to tie minimum wage increases to inflation,
said VEP members didn’t target his initiative, either.

There was one anomaly: An initiative that would mandate labeling of genetically engineered foods. Chief petitioners for that initiative, which could not be construed as anti-union, said they were targeted for harassment. “They would stand next to my poor volunteers, these big pipefitters with their arms crossed over their chest, and just scare the hell out of them,” said sponsor Katelyn Lord. She said she believes her group was targeted because it hired some paid petitioners who were also carrying petitions for measures VEP didn’t like.

Meek said he believed the VEP was clearly doing the union’s work: “They certainly didn’t go after people collecting for the union’s own measure—Measure 26 and the minimum wage.”

Richard A. Clucas, a political science professor at Portland State University, says he has no knowledge that VEP is biased, but said he wouldn’t be surprised. “I suppose it’s like Watergate,” he says. “Follow the money.”

Rumble at Election Headquarters

Once petitions are turned over to the state, you might expect the fight to be over, one way or another, since the signatures are now in the hands of elections officials.

Instead, the war zone simply moves.

VEP employees observing the verification process at secretary of state elections headquarters do more than observe, says Brenda Bayes, an elections division staffer. She says that while VEP members are restricted from commenting directly to the department staff or attempting to influence them, they loudly exchange observations about the process—loudly enough to be bothersome to workers.

Once the state’s process is complete, the arena changes again, and VEP members are dispatched to county elections offices to observe while elections workers there compare initiative signatures with those of registered voters on file.

Here is where trench warfare begins, some say. Workers for VEP and workers for the initiatives watch the comparison process, and if either side doesn’t like a decision to accept or reject a signature, it can appeal it.

“When we come to a point where we are accepting or rejecting a signature, we make it possible for either side to bring signatures that they question to me,” says John Kauffman, Multnomah County Elections Director. “They cannot talk to workers they’re watching. They can come to me, but they’re not allowed to disrupt the process.”

In all, he says, the process is orderly.

But Ted Piccolo, the term limits sponsor, describes a scene that more closely resembles the Florida hanging-chad review groups from the 2000 presidential election: “They’re looking over (election workers’) shoulders and we’re looking over their shoulders, arguing over signatures. We say, ‘it’s good,’ and they say ‘no, it’s bad.’ It’s unreal.”

An Unexpected Result

The fracas in the streets has effectively pushed this year’s tax surcharge referendum underground. Instead of sending large teams each day to high-profile public places to gather signatures, thousands of petition sheets went out in the mail—not to politicos, but to regular Oregonians.

And, organizers say, regular Oregonians have taken them to friends’ houses, workplaces and classrooms and sent them back filled with signatures.

In all, some 70 percent of referendum petition signatures are coming by mail, organizers say.

If so, it’s a major change in initiative politics. A return to the old ways.

Dane Waters, of the Virginia-based Initiative and Referendum Institute, says paid circulators have been the norm in citizen-driven proposals for decades, ever since women swore off volunteer campaign work and took to the workplace.

“Sixty years ago, we were one-income families. Husbands would go off to work, and wives could volunteer and work on the electoral process,” Waters says. “Now, most people work 40 to 60 hours a week. There’s no time to volunteer.”

Referendum organizers say their opponents at VEP have managed to activate a population of anti-tax Oregonians who normally don’t have time to volunteer and wouldn’t involve themselves in campaigning at all.

Even so, Waters believes that the initiative process has been damaged by VEP’s accusations and what he believes is the media’s eagerness to portray initiatives as negative influences on public policy. “If your neighbor is accused of crimes, whether true or not, it plants the idea that maybe something is going on that you don’t know about. People don’t like negative publicity.”

But VEP is no longer simply an Oregon group, Waters says. It has already planted seed groups in other states, including Washington state, in an effort to become national.

“Oregon was the original impetus—to shut down Bill Sizemore—that was the genesis of the project. The union and the individuals behind it are using it as a model to (battle) initiatives they don’t like in other states,” he says.

Legal

Laws exist to protect polling places in America and to protect the act of voting, but legal experts say there is little protecting the initiative process.

Robert L. Tsai, a University of Oregon law professor specializing in Constitutional law, says people who heckle and yell and taunt are unlikely to be chastened by the legal system because their free speech rights are paramount.

And while courts have allowed action to be taken against people who physically block someone from pursuing a Constitutionally protected activity, “evidence of illegal activity would have to be pretty high for a court to interfere with First Amendment rights,” he says.

John DiLorenzo, a Portland lawyer knowledgeable on election law, says there is a state statute that specifically bans efforts to “hinder or delay” signature gathering. But because the statute specifically singles out people who are paid to hinder or delay, it leaves the door open for volunteers with the same goal in mind. Whether VEP’s reported actions could be construed by a court as hindering or delaying, DiLorenzo says he’s not sure.

Critics of the initiative system say they don’t know how a court would come down on the issue, if it were asked, but they are sure VEP’s work is a valuable check on what they believe is a runaway process. “Most voters don’t know what a measure will do when there are a lot of them,” says Willamette’s Ellis. “If there are fewer measures on the ballot, voters will be able to get information on those measures and make intelligent decisions.”

Waters says he believes voters are making intelligent decisions. “I’ve yet to see any research that says voter fatigue is causing voters not to be competent. It’s just that some people think representative democracy—through elected officials–is the only way to govern. But the referendum process has been around since the founding of our nation and people have shown over and over again that they don’t want to give their sovereignty to lawmakers. They don’t want to give up their authority to make a decision.”

Meek agrees. “If the initiative process gets shut down, it will mean that the entire political process is for politicians only and for those with money. Initiatives are the only way for the regular Oregonian to affect politics.”

One thing is certain. It will be some time before elections officials can wade through the new load of cases spurred by VEP and VEP’s detractors and decide whose complaints have the most merit.

Kevin Neely, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said that despite the dust kicked up by the controversy, elections complaints and cross-complaints just aren’t top priority for his office. “Let’s put it this way: It’s not going to get the same attention that Christian Longo gets.”



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