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Published September 04 2012

How a petition gets approved (or not)

BISMARCK – The first mistake Lee Ann Oliver notices on a petition is that there aren’t enough mistakes.

Every line is filled in completely. Every name is printed neatly. There are no abbreviations or illegible portions. None of the signatories is from out of state.

In a legitimate petition, that level of regularity is downright irregular.

“You don’t run into that,” Oliver said. “Once you just start hitting all the same colored ink and the same type of writing and all the ‘f’’s in ‘Fargo’ look the same, you know the same person was doing it.”

Oliver, an elections specialist with the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office, ran into all of those red flags while evaluating the signatures on two recent petitions: a proposal to legalize medical marijuana and a proposal to set up a land and water conservation fund.

Both petitions were ultimately rejected from the ballot because too many signatures were deemed invalid – something that has only happened once before in Oliver’s two decades on the job.

The process of making that determination is a painstaking one.

Ballot measure petitions have tens of thousands of names – combined, the two measures in question had about 58,000 – and Oliver goes through every single one by hand, twice.

The first time, she’s simply counting to make sure there are enough signatures to warrant further evaluation. Ballot measures that would create laws need about 13,500 signatures, or 2 percent of the state’s population. Measures that would amend the constitution need about 27,000, or 4 percent of the population.

Then she goes through again to check on the particulars: a valid date, a complete name, a complete North Dakota address. She also weeds out obvious fake names like “Mickey Mouse” and “Captain Hook.”

Both the conservation and medical marijuana petitions had more than 1,000 signatures rejected because they didn’t meet those technical requirements.

Finally, if the petition is still alive at that point, she sends out 2,000 postcards to a random sample of people, asking them to verify that they signed and are eligible to do so. Many of those go unanswered, though that’s not necessarily a sign of fraud – the intended recipient might have moved or simply ignored the postcard.

Hundreds of responses without issue is a good sign for the petition. Dozens of people calling to say they never signed it or saw it is a bad one.

The random sampling of the conservation petition turned up at least 38 people who said they never signed the petition, and another 56 who said they weren’t eligible to sign.

A random sampling was not conducted for the medical marijuana petition. Oliver said the signs of trouble were so widespread that it wasn’t worth sending out postcards that likely would have invalidated hundreds more signatures.

If there’s sufficient reason to suspect fraud, the secretary of state’s office alerts the attorney general, who can conduct an investigation.

The bulk of the signatures invalidated in the two scuttled petitions were not rejected because of bad or incomplete information.

Instead, they were rejected because the petition circulators, who signed affidavits swearing the signatures were genuine and proper, refused to reaffirm as much when pressed by investigators.

That rendered all signatures collected by that circulator invalid, even though some may have been collected properly.

The Forum reviewed a small sample of the signatures that set off alarm bells. Several were penned in identical handwriting just a few lines apart. Many transposed the ZIP codes of Fargo and West Fargo. A few gave fake addresses.

In one instance, the name John Hajostek was listed. Forum Communications’ chief financial officer is named John Hajostek. The address listed matched Hajostek’s, but the city was identified as Fargo, not Moorhead, where he lives – and where residents are ineligible for North Dakota petitions. Hajostek said he has never seen the petition.

The address listed doesn't exist in Fargo.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

Of the 37,785 signatures on the conservation petition, at least 17,034 were deemed invalid. Those included:

• 15,868 invalidated because the circulators refused to reaffirm affidavits saying the names were genuine

• 351 with no address

• 328 with out-of-state addresses

• 272 with no date

• 88 signed for another person, like a spouse or friend

• 64 with no name of a circulator on the petition

• 47 with only a first or a last name

• 6 where the same person signed more than one petition for the measure

• 5 where the circulator also signed the petition

• 3 signed by the notary who notarized that petition

• 1 signed after the petition had been notarized

• 1 with no name

Of the 20,092 signatures on the medical marijuana petition, at least 7,559 were deemed invalid. Those include:

• 6,045 invalidated because circulators refused to reaffirm affidavits of authenticity

• 800 from out-of-state circulators

• 244 with out-of-state addresses

• 175 with no address

• 174 where the petition was not circulated in its entirety

• 39 signed for another person

• 35 with only a first or a last name

• 26 with no date

• 12 with “bogus names”

• 6 signed after the petition had been notarized

• 3 with no names