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Friday, May 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Calls issue warning on initiatives

By Beth Kaiman
Seattle Times staff reporter

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As many as half a million area households are receiving recorded phone calls this week that warn voters to beware of initiative drives because some paid signature gatherers have criminal pasts and may "say anything to get your signature."

The unprecedented campaign, which began yesterday in the 206 and 425 area codes, appears to be an effort to prevent Tim Eyman from getting the nearly 200,000 signatures he needs to get each of his two proposed initiatives on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The calls do not mention Eyman or the tax-cut and gambling measures he is promoting with the help of volunteers and paid signature gatherers.

But the group funding the calls, the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, opposes Eyman's efforts, citing what it says would be a loss of government jobs and services.

This spring, at least six initiative efforts are employing paid signature gatherers or say they have the money to do so. The going rate tends to be $1.50 to $3 per signature.

What the message says





Here's the recorded phone message that began going out yesterday with money from the Washington State Council of County and City Employees:

"In the coming weeks you may be approached by a paid signature gatherer. You should be aware that your signature is worth up to $3 to the special interest who sponsor these initiatives.

With your signature worth that much, it isn't surprising to know that some of these paid signature gatherers have been convicted of forgery, signature fraud and other crimes. They may say anything to gain your signature.

Protect yourself and beware!

Know what you're signing and who is asking for your signature.

A message from the Voter Education Committee."

Source: Washington State Council of County and City Employees

The phone calls warn, "Some of these paid signature gatherers have been convicted of forgery, signature fraud and other crimes."

Chris Dugovich, the union's president and executive, acknowledged it is not known that any signature gatherers involved in current petition drives have been convicted of crimes. But he said the union wanted voters to be aware of the potential for abuse when people gather signatures for a living.

"I don't think they (voters) have thought about the impurities of the system yet," Dugovich said. "Most people believe the person standing there is an activist who believes in the cause."

Eyman labeled the calls an underhanded way to keep initiatives off the ballot.

Instead of arguing the issues on the merits, he said, "they are trying to scare people."

No widespread signature fraud or forgery has occurred during initiative campaigns in Washington state in recent memory, according to the Secretary of State's Office and the state Attorney General's Office. A handful of cases involving forged petition signatures has been discovered and pursued by law enforcement, said Jeffrey Even, an assistant state attorney general.

Dugovich said though the calls are not anti-Eyman, he blames Eyman for helping change the character of Washington's initiative process, which was approved by voters in 1912. What was once the exclusive domain of volunteers, Dugovich said, is now often a for-profit business.

Eyman draws a salary from campaign contributions and employs signature-gathering firms.

Secretary of State Sam Reed said voters should have confidence in the system his office uses to detect forgeries. Each signature is not checked, but about 5 to 7 percent of signatures are examined to make sure names match those of registered voters and that signatures match those on the voter-registration forms.

Reed said some cases involve obvious forgeries, with names signed in the same handwriting or in alphabetical order — a clue that they might have been copied out of a phone book.

Reed said he is a "little leery" of a phone campaign that discourages people from signing petitions out of concern about the signature gatherer's criminal record or intent.

"I'm more concerned, really, that people take time to understand the issue (before signing)," Reed said.

Last month the union, along with a police and sheriffs' group, made calls to more than 200,000 Pierce County homes. Those alleged that identity thieves could be posing as signature gatherers.

The computerized phone calls are not affected by the national do-not-call registry, the union said, because political messages are exempt. The union said the calls would be limited to daytime hours to minimize disruption.

Beth Kaiman: 206-464-2441 or bkaiman@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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