One of the reasons the U.S. District Court agreed with me that South Dakota had violated the Constitution when it tried to make ballot question petition circulators register, pay fees, and wear badges was that the state failed to demonstrate any widespread abuse of the petition process.
If Representative Jon Hansen (R-25/Dell Rapids) and the other Republicans whose oppression of voters I’ve fought in court were listening to NPR yesterday, their anti-democratic spidey-sense would have tingled at this report of fraud cropping up petition drives in Michigan:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
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 [Ashley Lopez, “There’s a Fraud Problem with Signature-Gathering for Elections,” NPR: All Things Considered, 2023.04.03].
Before Hansen and the petition-persecutors get all excited, we should note several details about this report:
- Lopez gives no indication that these six failed Michigan petitions—five for candidates, only one for a ballot measure—demonstrate any increase in petition fraud.
- Here in South Dakota, Representative Hansen expressed concern that liberals would abuse the petition process to force out-of-state liberalism on South Dakota, but the fraudulent petitions Lopez reports were all pushed by conservative Republicans.
- These instances of fraud were all caught by existing regulations and review procedures, by both the state and by the petition sponsors themselves. Michigan’s system for catching fraud and keeping fraudulent candidates and ballot measures off the ballot worked.
- The main motivation for fraud in these Michigan cases, pay per signature, is already addressed in South Dakota, where paying circulators per signature is already illegal (see SDCL 12-13-38).
- Imposing more regulations on the process may only increase the chance for fraud. Adding regulations and legal liability to petition drives raises the cost of circulating petitions. Higher compliance costs price more grassroots volunteer groups out of the process. Organizations have to spend more money to collect more signatures to clear the hurdles placed between them and the ballot, and more money invites more fraud. Tammy Patrick, CEO of the National Association of Election Officials, affirms this point at the bottom of Lopez’s article:
LOPEZ: …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 [Lopez, 2023.04.03].
Republicans like Jon Hansen have cloaked their war against direct democracy in concerns about petition fraud. But their concerns are overhyped. Nothing in Lopez’s article on petition fraud would allow Representative Hansen to come back to the 2024 Session and say, “See? I was right and Cory and the court were wrong! Petition fraud is everywhere! Let’s pass more regulations!” States already have the tools they need to catch petition fraud. Adding more regulations to the petition process only raises costs and invites more fraud.