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Petition signature-checking in progress

Three initiatives await Aug. 2 deadline.


If you have signed a petition to put an initiative measure to a statewide vote Nov. 4, your signature may be among thousands that state officials check against voter registration records.

Then again, your signature may not be checked.

Under Oregon’s verification process, sampling is used to determine whether supporters have gathered the minimum 87,213 signatures required to qualify an initiative for the statewide ballot. The number changes every four years, because the Oregon Constitution specifies that it is 6 percent of the total votes cast for governor. For a proposed constitutional amendment, the threshold is 8 percent.

An initiative to write women’s rights into the Oregon Constitution has already qualified, as have two other measures referred by the Legislature or by voters seeking to overturn a law passed by legislators.

Supporters will have until Aug. 2 to learn the immediate fates of initiative measures to establish a top-two primary election, legalize marijuana for recreational use and regulate sales and taxation, and require labeling of genetically engineered food.

The order of processing is determined by when supporters submitted their signatures.

This past week, it was those interested in the measure that would advance the top two finishers in a primary election, regardless of party affiliation, to the general election.

The verification process by state elections workers in Salem was observed by members of Every Oregon Voter Counts, the campaign committee sponsoring the measure, and the Oregon Education Association and Our Oregon. OEA opposed a similar measure that voters defeated in 2008, and Our Oregon is funded by unions that also opposed the 2008 measure.

Observers for the marijuana and GMO measures will take their turns soon.

During the first stage, known as “sorting,” state Elections Division workers review whether petition sheets comply with state law and administrative rules, such as the petition circulator signing and dating sheets.

During the second stage, known as data entry, workers review each line on a petition sheet to make sure there is a signature, and that it has not been crossed out or the line left blank. This step allows for an unofficial total of signatures gathered, which may differ from the amount that supporters say they submitted.

The lines with signatures then are entered into a computer.

Then a sample is drawn amounting to 5.01 percent of the number of signatures gathered. The sheets drawn for sampling are separated from the rest.

There are two batches sampled, each done similarly.

The first starts with 1,000 signatures.

The computer selects at random signatures to be checked, based on petition pages and line numbers entered previously during "data entry."

Elections officials then check the randomly selected signature against the individual’s signature in the statewide voter registration database. Although registration is conducted by Oregon’s 36 counties, a statewide network ties the records together.

After the statewide database became active in 2006, state officials took over signature verification tasks that had been farmed out to the counties.

“We are looking for (handwriting) characteristics that are shared, more similar than dissimilar,” said Summer Davis, an Elections Division official who has been working the process for many years.

State officials also check whether the person whose signature is being verified was an active voter when the signature was obtained. If there is no match, officials try to determine why.

Davis said discrepancies may surface because the person may use a middle name, or for women, a maiden name. A change of address may also account for apparent discrepancies.

“We are more mobile than we used to be,” Davis said.

Officials also attempt to flag duplicate or triplicate signatures, and whether someone who signed a sponsorship petition also signed a regular petition.

Sponsorship petitions were created by a 2007 law, which took effect in January 2008, in an attempt to reduce what was described as “ballot title shopping.” It primarily affected petitions circulated in 2010 and afterward.

Sponsorship petitions, requiring 1,000 signatures, are used to obtain ballot titles — official summaries — before measures are cleared for circulation of regular petitions. However, the first batch of signatures is counted toward the eventual total, so voters who sign sponsorship petitions cannot sign again.

If a measure fails to qualify based on sampling of the first 1,000 signatures, the remainder of the signatures in the sample undergo processing in the same manner.

Davis said for the first batch of 1,000 signatures, an 8 percent duplication rate is assumed, but for the remaining signatures sampled, there is no assumed duplication rate.

If state elections officials turn up an invalid signature during verification, it is not counted for or against the total required.

But if a duplicate signature is found — meaning that a voter signed petition sheets for the same measure twice, which is against the law — it results in 400 signatures deducted from the total accumulated. If a triplicate signature is found, the deduction is 420 signatures.

peterwong@PortlandTribune.com

(503)385-4899

twitter.com/capitolwong