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There's a fraud problem with signature-gathering for elections


If you've ever signed a ballot petition for a candidate or an issue, there's a chance you talked to someone who was hired to get your signature. Recently, though, some notable campaigns have been derailed because paid canvassers turned in thousands of invalid signatures. Now some states are hoping to crack down on bad practices. Here's NPR's Ashley Lopez.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: There was this big election scandal in Michigan last year that threw the state's Republican gubernatorial primary into a bit of chaos.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Now to the shakeup in the race for governor. Five Republican candidates now officially thrown off the ballot. That's half the field.

LOPEZ: All these candidates were disqualified because they submitted thousands of invalid signatures among the 15,000 they needed to run for office. A state board leader said the problem was the people hired to collect the signatures.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Election staffers say names were spelled wrong. The information for dead voters was used. They also say obvious handwriting characteristics were repeated throughout some sheets.

LOPEZ: Officials found evidence of roundtabling. This is when individual canvassers pass around a sheet and each person signs a line so it looks like a bunch of different voters signed them. And this didn't just affect candidates. Jamie Roe, a Republican strategist, tried to get a measure on the Michigan ballot to tighten voting rules.

JAMIE ROE: I think it's wise to put in place systems and rules that mitigate the ability to commit fraud.

LOPEZ: Ironically, his proposal was unable to get before voters because of fraud. He suspected issues with the signatures collected by paid canvassers.

ROE: Particularly after the stuff went down with the candidates for governor. I mean, we redoubled our efforts to verify, and we found somewhere in the neighborhood of 50- or 60,000 signatures that we believe were invalid.

LOPEZ: Roe says it was frustrating his measure didn't get on the ballot, especially because it was so expensive to get those signatures. He says in the past, a signature from a paid collector would cost him a few bucks. But that's changed. And he says it's encouraging fraud.

ROE: The thing is, when it's $2 or $3 per signature, you're probably unlikely to engage in that kind of activity. When it's $15 a signature, there is a high financial motivation to commit fraud.

LOPEZ: People who have been in this industry say the spike in costs has been staggering. Ted Blaszak has a company that's helped put a measure on the ballot in 18 different states. Blaszak says these days, it's not uncommon for a single signature to cost up to $20 or $30.

TED BLASZAK: And that's a direct reflection of much higher costs being paid to the individual canvasser as their labor is more in demand.

LOPEZ: Blaszak says these are always hard jobs to fill, but it's been particularly hard to fill them since the pandemic and low unemployment in recent years. This is why he paid about $50 an hour to workers in his last campaign.

BLASZAK: It's often discouraging work, so people need to be well-compensated to do challenging work in today's economy.

LOPEZ: He says this decision to pay workers per hour instead of per signature is also key to preventing fraud. That's a point that's largely echoed by Tammy Patrick with The Election Center, which is the National Association of Election Officials.

TAMMY PATRICK: When individuals are compensated by signature, that incentivizes getting signatures to the degree that the voter maybe doesn't understand what they're signing, or they're misrepresenting what's being signed, or they're encouraging people to sign even if they're not eligible.

LOPEZ: Election officials say it takes a lot of time and resources to verify ballot signatures. That's why states like Colorado and California now want to create new regulations for paid canvassers.

JENA GRISWOLD: The vast majority of signature collectors and petition companies do a good job. But there are some bad actors.

LOPEZ: That's Colorado's elections chief, Secretary of State Jena Griswold. She says the state's laws around this practice could be tightened. She wants to start by making it easier to crack down on those bad actors.

GRISWOLD: Right now, you could only hold a petition entity liable if they either authorized or knowingly permitted the violation in question. We're changing that standard to just negligence.

LOPEZ: Griswold says she wants stiffer penalties for workers who submit fraudulent signatures, as well as the companies they work for. But Tammy Patrick of the Election Center says there has to be a balance. She says states should be careful they aren't making it harder for community-led efforts to get on the ballot.

PATRICK: I do think that the initiative process is an important one, and we need to make sure that it continues to be conducted in a way that reflects the will of the community and is done with both integrity and transparency.

LOPEZ: Patrick says, ultimately, the best way to ensure there is integrity in signature gathering is to have the bulk of the work done by volunteers who believe in the cause. Ashley Lopez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.