LITTLE ROCK — Secretary of State Mark Martin is considering whether to ask state police to investigate suspected canvassing improprieties with two ballot issue campaigns that submitted tens of thousands of bogus signatures.
Leaders of the groups say they would welcome a criminal investigation.
State police could be asked to probe possible forging of signatures, duplicated names and signatures of people not registered to vote on petitions submitted by two groups seeking to have ballot measures certified for the November general election ballot, according to Martin spokesman Alex Reed.
No decision is likely until after groups given extra time to gather signatures have submitted them and they are counted, Reed said.
"We’re trying to finish up what we have to finish up and then we will look at that," he said.
Martin’s office is using an accounting firm to verify whether ballot groups submitted the required number of signatures of registered voters to qualify for the ballot. Election officials have disqualified the bulk of signatures submitted by supporters of proposals to raise the state severance tax on natural gas and authorize casinos. Each group has 30 days to make up deficiencies totaling tens of thousands of signatures.
Sheffield Nelson, the former gas executive who is spearheading the drive to raise the severance tax, on Thursday embraced the possibility of a criminal investigation.
"I hope they do," Nelson said. "I would encourage it strongly."
Nancy Todd, whose Nancy Todd’s Poker Palace & Entertainment Venues LLC wants to legalize casino gambling in four Arkansas counties, said her group would help state officials pursue any signature fraud claims against canvassers.
"Forging signatures is a serious criminal offense," she said this week.
Last week, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Bigelow, an opponent of Nelson’s severance tax proposal, asked the secretary of state’s office to seek a state police investigation of the unusually higher number of invalid signatures collected by Nelson.
Arkansas Code Annotated 7-9-103 makes it a Class A misdemeanor to sign another person’s name to a petition, knowingly sign a petition more than once, knowingly sign a petition when not illegally entitled to do so and knowingly misrepresent the purpose of a petition.
It also is a Class A misdemeanor for a canvasser to knowingly make a false statement on a petition form, for a notary to knowingly make a false statement on a petition form, or for a notary to knowingly fail to witness the canvasser’s affidavit.
A Class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine.
For three weeks, the secretary of state’s office has been working to verify signatures on petitions by groups that want to qualify their proposed initiated acts or constitutional amendments for the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
Martin’s office has rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to authorize casinos in seven Arkansas counties for failing to meet a signature collection requirement.
Nelson, Todd and backers of a proposal to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes have 30 days to make up signature deficiencies.
Election officials verified 55.8 percent, or 36,495, of the signatures submitted by Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the group pushing the medical marijuana. The proposed initiated act needs 26,012 more valid signatures to reach the 62,507 threshold to qualify for the ballot.
But officials found about 70 percent of signatures submitted for Nelson’s and Todd’s proposals were invalid.
In each case, Reed said this week, election officials found duplicate signatures on some of the pages turned in, as as well as names of people who were not registered voters, and possible evidence that some of the signatures were forged.
He said the unofficial benchmark for verified signatures is about 70 percent, so two petitions with 30 percent or less raised some red flags.
Any request for a criminal investigation would not be made until after the grace period the groups were given to gather additional signatures is expired, Reed said. Todd and supporters of the medical marijuana proposal have said they will continue gathering signatures. Nelson suspended his campaign Tuesday.
"In an event we do turn it over to (the state police), I would imagine they would look at canvassers, the people who gathered the signatures. I think they would look at everything," Reed said Wednesday.
Nelson said earlier this week he was disappointed with the poor verification rate and questioned the motives of some of the canvassers.
"Some of them decided to make some extra money. That’s fraud," he said. "But it’s fraud on the part of the people who were faking these signatures, who would apparently sit down in groups and sign these petitions and pass them around to enough people that you couldn’t identify that it was being done by a group at the time."
Nelson’s group, Arkansans for a Fair Severance Tax, has raised $155,000 for the effort and about $97,000 has been spent on canvassers, according to reports filed with the state Ethics Commission. Thompson and Associates of Little Rock was hired to organize the petition drive, but Nelson questioned the actions of individual canvassers paid to gather signatures — $1.20 for each one.
"There were a lot of fake signatures," he said.
If Nelson decides to continue his campaign, he has until Aug. 20 to gather 41,160 more valid signatures to reach the 62,507 requirement for his proposed initiated act.
Todd said her group did not hire a company to collect signatures, but relied on volunteers who were paid $1 per signature. The group raised $59,600 for the effort and spent $57,770, according its latest Ethics Commission filing.
She said she has since started paying professional canvassers $2 per signature to collect the additional 54,517 signatures she needs to reach the requirement of 78,133 by Aug. 22.
"We bring in people who are in the business of doing this," she said. "They know about a voter registration form, they fully understand voter fraud, but more importantly they have an accountability on a national level. There is a site and a place you can go to verify their (collection) rate."