The Voter Education (Eradication) Project|
Is Their Goal Education or Elimination
of Oregon Votersí Rights?
By Lisa Baker
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.
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…
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.
arrests later, their case seemingly
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
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
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
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
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,”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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
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.”
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,”
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.
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
mostly from public and private union coffers. Board members such as Nesbitt
even on such things as middle management personnel changes, he says.
so, Wentz says, “we’re pretty independent.”
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
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
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
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.”
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
he believed the VEP was clearly doing the union’s work: “They
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
say, ‘it’s good,’ and they say ‘no, it’s
An Unexpected Result
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.
say, regular Oregonians have taken them to friends’ houses, workplaces
and classrooms and sent them back filled
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
“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