The following article from a Nevada paper probes the question of whether the use of paid companies to collect signatures for ballot initiatives is having an adverse effect on the process. - Editor
BALLOT INITIATIVES: Paying for Petitions
Critics Say Company has used Underhanded Tactics in Past
By MOLLY BALL
A smiling person with a clipboard approaches you as you enter the DMV. Will you sign a petition to put a question on the November ballot?
Opponents of certain ballot initiatives being circulated say you should think twice. A company that's being paid big money to collect the more than 58,000 required signatures, they say, has a history of shady dealings in other states.
The three initiatives in question are backed by Las Vegas Sands Corp.
Two of the initiatives, the Education Enhancement Act and the Funding Nevada's Priorities Act, would shift money from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority into education and transportation. A third, the Taxpayers Protection Act, would require a two-thirds vote in favor of a ballot initiative that seeks to raise taxes.
Signatures for the three initiatives are being collected by National Voter Outreach, a Carson City based company that has worked in Nevada and all over the country for more than a decade.
The company's president last year was indicted in Oklahoma and charged, along with two others, with conspiracy to defraud voters.
The company defends its reputation, saying it has a long track record in the business of collecting signatures for petitions. The company says the legal proceedings in Oklahoma, which are still pending, are unfair, and that charges of misconduct elsewhere are baseless.
But a watchdog group calls the company one of the top "fraud merchants" in the country and "a leader in cultivating deceptive signature gathering practices."
The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center points to signature gathering campaigns conducted by the company in Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New York and Washington where tactics used to collect signatures have been questioned and sometimes have led to initiatives being thrown off ballots.
The watchdog's executive director, Kristina Wilfore, acknowledges that the center has a liberal agenda of its own and opposes the initiatives in question. But she says the allegations of fraud in the gathering of signatures for conservative ballot measures should give voters in Nevada pause.
"Nevadans should be aware that there's been wrongdoing that has led to them being kicked off the ballot in some cases," she said. "They're known to employ some of the worst circulators. Their primary objective is to make money and to get these on the ballot through whatever means possible."
National Voter Outreach's CEO, Rick Arnold, says the company has no political ax to grind and has ample checks and balances to safeguard against fraud.
"I've been doing this for 30 years," he said. "No one can stay in business for 30 years if they're acting illegally. We do not break the law. We're very careful. We do have people who are circulators for us who attempt to do things they shouldn't do, and part of our quality control is to catch that."
The company has collected signatures on petitions with both a liberal and a conservative bent, he said, including a 2004 Nevada initiative backed by the teachers union. That initiative made it onto the ballot but didn't pass.
Its successful initiatives in Nevada go back to now-Gov. Jim Gibbons' tax restraint initiative, added to the state constitution in 1994, which implemented the requirement that two-thirds of the Legislature approve any tax increase. The company also worked for Gibbons' 2006 Education First initiative, which requires the Legislature to pass the education budget before any other budgets, and 2004's Keep Our Doctors In Nevada, a tort-reform measure.
Arnold said the company is a victim of attempts to politicize its mission, which is simply to make a profit by getting initiatives on the ballot. "We would like to be nonpartisan, and we pretty much are, but this group has blackballed us and is telling progressive groups not to use us," Arnold said.
National Voter Outreach purchases signatures from independent contractors who do the actual circulation of the petitions. Response to job ads has been high lately because of economic conditions, especially in Clark County, Arnold said.
The company pays by the signature and pays only for signatures that include all the required information, are in ink and are notarized correctly. The company then does its own checks of names and addresses against the voter rolls, to make sure each one is from a Nevada registered voter, he said.
Restrictions on the initiative process, such as a law passed by the 2007 Legislature requiring signatures from all 17 Nevada counties, make it difficult for a purely grass-roots effort to get on the ballot and give companies such as Arnold's a growing niche nationwide. Almost all the initiatives to reach the Nevada statewide ballot in recent years have employed paid signature gatherers.
Establishment politicians tend not to like initiatives because they put control back in the hands of the people, but initiatives keep coming because the people support them, Arnold said.
The signature gatherers are trained, he said, to "emphasize, 'Here's an issue we think is important. You're not making a final decision, just saying it's something the people should get to vote on.' Frankly, most people like that empowerment. The people like the process. The people support the process."
Arnold called the Oklahoma indictment frivolous. Before circulation began on a measure that would limit government spending and taxes in the state, the company, he said, sought clarification from Oklahoma elections officials about a requirement that circulators be residents of the state.
After the petitions were submitted, Arnold claims, the courts invented a new standard for state residency after the fact. The initiative was thrown off the ballot because of allegations that the signatures were ill-gotten.
The case is still pending. Wilfore said there is ample evidence of bad intentions on the part of the circulators.
"It's offensive that the people who were indicted are trying to say this is an attack on democracy," she said. "They got 15 fake state driver's licenses for people to prove residency. That's not just not knowing the rules."
In Nevada, signature gatherers are not required to be state residents, and Arnold said many of those working for the current initiatives are from out of state.
It's also legal to pay gatherers for signatures on a per-signature basis, which critics say creates an incentive for fraud. (It is not legal to pay people for their signatures.)
The 58,628 required signatures, which must be checked by county clerks and registrars before being accepted by the secretary of state, are due on May 20. The Sands-backed initiatives and others are being challenged in court.
Matt Griffin, elections deputy in the secretary of state's office, said enforcement of the signature requirements is vital to the integrity of the initiative process.
"There has to be strict oversight to ensure the initiative process is fair," he said.
Nevadans for Nevada, a group backed by the state AFL-CIO, which opposes the Sands Corp. initiatives, is still deciding what actions to take against them, said Danny Thompson, the union's secretary-treasurer.
National Voter Outreach's involvement is one troubling aspect of the campaigns, Thompson said.
"We know their history. We know what they've done in Oklahoma. Everyone they approach should be concerned about what their motives are."
Sands is committed to operating the campaigns in an aboveboard manner, said Robert Uithoven, a political consultant to the company.
"Our signature gathering is being done legally," he said. "We support these initiative campaigns in 100 percent full compliance with Nevada law. We believe the message of finding alternatives to massive tax increases is resonating statewide."
Uithoven said the signature-gathering efforts are ahead of schedule and that if the court battle doesn't derail them, the initiatives will meet the requirements for certification by the secretary of state.
Wilfore said she believes underhanded tactics have been common in signature gathering but have begun to come to light only in recent years.
"We're just starting to expose the underbelly of paid signature gathering. Whether an initiative is conservative or progressive, if you have fraudulent signature gathering going on, people being lied to, all these abuses, this pattern we're seeing -- it's a threat to anyone who cares about direct democracy."
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.