Validating Signatures - Making Sure Your Petitions Count
by Rick Arnold and Susan Johnson, National Voter Outreach
From U.S. Term Limits to Ross Perot, many initiative proponents have been denied ballot access because the signatures they gathered from their petition drives were not validated. That’s why "validity checking" - the process of data comparison and matching - is so crucial to just about every initiative and third party
campaign effort. To validate a petition signer’s name for legal requirements, the signature and residence information is matched with the actual voter
registration card and identified for authenticity purposes. This verification procedure and its lingo vary widely from state to state.
Out of the 24 states which allow citizen-sponsored initiatives, just four of them - Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and South Dakota - presume signatures to be valid. Even with an "umbrella law," Arkansas and Colorado still validate signatures. In Colorado, signatures won’t be considered eligible for the validation process unless 147 percent of the legal requirements is submitted. In Oklahoma and South Dakota signatures will only be validated if someone challenges their validity. Of course, an organized opposition will always challenge.
Eight states do random sample checks. They check between two and 10 percent of the names submitted. If the outcome of the check is favorable, no other checks are required. If the random sample fails, a full check may be executed if time permits. In California, for example, the celebrated school voucher initiative was denied ballot access in 1994 because it failed the random sample test but was placed on the subsequent ballot after a full-check deemed it sufficient.
The remaining 16 states check each and every signature by comparing the signature to the actual voter registration card. It is a tedious process.
Frequently, the official validation process itself is wrought with error. In Colorado, for instance, the Trinidad Gaming issue took two years to prove that signatures were inappropriately discounted by the Secretary of State’s office. "Spitting matches" like that take place when the proponent of a ballot measure goes in and rechecks "bad" signatures looking for human error. When differences of opinion arise as to the validity of certain signatures, everyone frequently ends up in court. Many times, NVO as well as other groups and organizations saved signature campaigns by challenging the work of the election authorities.
Many problems occur when a Secretary of State has the responsibility to check all signatures. That happens when the county keeps the voter data and transmits it to the Secretary of State who then validates the signatures. In Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Washington, and Wyoming. The Secretary of State’s office checks the signatures themselves.
A problem is created when county records are not updated frequently enough. As a consequence, the Secretary of State may be dealing with old information. That was the case for Robert Fabec (Trinidad Gaming Initiative) in Colorado. The individual county files showed that circulators were registered to vote three to four weeks prior to the deadline. But that information was not transmitted to the Secretary of State’s office prior to the verification process. As a result, hundreds of signatures were discounted causing the drive to fail (temporarily) and miss the desired ballot.
Most election officials are conscientious and hard working. But in general, statewide and local election divisions are understaffed. Because most signature drives circulate and complete their effort within the same six month time frame, election officials are frequently inundated with signatures from multiple campaigns. In Florida, for example, many campaigns turn in about 650,000 signatures over the course of about four months and there is one piece of paper by every signature. Multiply that by the 37 statewide initiatives that circulated, and add to that the 400,000 signatures turned in by four third-party candidate petitions. After you add it all up, it’s easy to understand the deluge and stress the officials operate under.
Frequently, election officials are forced to hire temporary help during peak times. This is often like putting a band-aid across a severed artery. The help has limited experience. Often times officials are forced to open up offices elsewhere to handle the increase in bodies and equipment.
In California one million signatures are needed to get a measure on the ballot. Last year, proponents submitted sufficient signatures on 13 issues. For the 1998 ballot, California election officials recommend that signatures be turned in by February `98 to guarantee that they have enough time to check them prior to certification deadline. In other words, if your signatures are not turned in by then, they will not guarantee you ballot access no matter how many signatures are actually collected.
How can one circumvent problems at the validation phase? The answer is to know how many good signatures there are prior to submission. That necessitates validation checks by the campaign. A campaign needs to start with a good voter file. To verify signatures as they are collected, a copy of the voter file must be acquired prior to circulation. Voter files are an essential element to quality signature collection for any official signature campaign.
A good voter list can make the difference between collecting additional "insurance" signatures and completing with fewer signatures because of high valid rates. A good list can translate into less money spent for signatures and confidence during the qualification phase.
Unfortunately, obtaining a usable voter file is often difficult and complex. This is due to the number of sources, mismatched formats and legal issues that must be successfully resolved. Only then can acquisition of the data start.
The first step is to know who and where to get the file from. Many states require that voter data be acquired by county and, in some instances, by township. In several states voter files are only available to party officials. In other states, lists must be acquired by purchasing them from party officials. Seventy percent of state voter files are ordered directly from state or county election offices. In many states, such as Ohio, voter files can be purchased from the state or from individual counties.
To compile a Massachusetts statewide file, for example, 4,000 election offices must be contacted, individual rules complied with, payment exchanged, and a follow-up process is needed until the files are received. This takes place before the files can be converted into one usable format. In many instances, this process takes months and thousands of dollars.
Next, the variable formats of the data must be understood. Files kept by individual counties often differ from one another. Some are available on magnetic tape reels (600 or 1200 bpi). Others are available by county on 30 floppy diskettes. Once the statewide files are compiled, they are converted into one standard format.
Until last year, Arkansas files were kept on paper in all but one county. The only electronic statewide file compiled took nearly two years to receive and key punch. By the time the data was purchased for signature verification (six months after it was successfully converted), it was too old to be of any value for validation purposes. Often, the data is six to nine months old before the state gets full county updates.
For signature verification, files should be no more than six months old. Proponents of initiatives and candidate petitions are responsible for the costs associated with acquiring the voter lists. Barring any data glitches, this guarantees an accurate reading on the campaign’s validity rate within two to four percentage points.
Generally, voter files are compiled and converted data houses. Because of the difficulty involved, it’s best to stick with a reputable firm experienced in voter files. They must be frank and open about the integrity of the data and must be willing to stand behind its converted product.
Many signature campaigns start at the last minute, sometimes just weeks before the deadline. There may not be time to acquire the most recently updated voter files.
Old data necessitates field checks - taking records not found on the voter file to the local election officials and comparing them with their lists - whole signature collection is in process. This field check determines the "good" ratio.
Tests must be conducted periodically throughout the drive. The good ratio pinpoints the actual percent of signatures collected that will be certified.
One problem with field validation checks is the local election officials themselves. In many places, election officials have the authority to limit public access to voter files. Access to voter files may amount to turning over a number of signatures to the clerk who may check them if he or she has the time. Imagine this scenario.
Your campaign is collecting 2,000 signatures a day. The deadline is fast approaching. Your voter file is 12 months old. Your valid checks show that only 38 percent of the signatures that are being turned-in are good. You take the 950 bad signatures to the Supervisors of Elections hoping to find the "good ratio" prior to paying your petition circulators. Harried election officials are busily validating 11 other campaigns´ signatures. They tell you that they can only check 25 signatures today and, "no," you cannot have access to check them yourself.
In such cases, our only option is to gather "insurance" signatures to compensate for a possible low validity rate. If you don’t, our campaign may be in jeopardy.
In states such as California and Colorado, voter files are available on microfiche for public use and are updated one to three times each year. Colorado’s system includes the ability to electronically file registrations and corresponding signatures. However, only the microfiche system is accessible to the public. In Florida, voter files are available at some election offices while not at others. Many supervisors will update their records based upon changes made to the signing of a petition if that person stays within the same county.
In most areas, voter files are available at the local county clerk’s office. However, half the time access is limited and one-fourth of the time access is denied. Remember, though, that voter registration rolls are public information as are the validation results. With finesse, state and local data can be accessed through use of the Freedom of Information Act. However, you may not get the information you need in time for a fast moving signature drive.
It’s best to network with local registrars prior to circulation or shortly thereafter. Explain that you are checking the work of your circulators and need their cooperation and help. Ask them what resources are available. Most will appreciate your extra effort. Most importantly, they will be more inclined toward leniency whenever possible.
In the near future, many states will make their voter files available online. Some already have web sites and are beginning to include statewide petition drive information.
Local election officials will be able to instantly update registrations for public access. The technology already exists. UPS transmits signatures over the airwaves into database terminals within three minutes of delivering a package. This same technology will one day be employed for voter registration.
In the meantime, election officials have their hands full. So start early. Know your "valid rate" prior to submission. And submit signatures as soon as possible.
Give your campaign time to overcome any validation problems prior to the certification deadline.
As with many campaign tactics, a good offense is the best defense down the line.
By Rick Arnold & Susan Johnson -- National Voter Outreach, Campaign & Elections Magazine, June, 1997