The price of a ballot signature is way up, and experts worry it's encouraging fraud
Michigan's election for governor was upended last year when several Republicans were removed from the primary ballot for problems with their voter signatures.
The news highlighted instances of suspected fraud in the process, which experts say could be encouraged by higher rates signature-gathering companies are now charging for their services.
As a result, states such as Colorado and California are hoping to crack down on bad actors in the signature-gathering industry.
Here's what to know about the process and its pitfalls:
Why campaigns hire paid canvassers
Throughout a large swath of the country, campaigns need to obtain thousands of voter signatures in order to get their candidate or their issue on a ballot.
As a result, campaigns often hire companies to supplement volunteers and do the legwork of compiling signatures.
Jamie Roe, a longtime Republican political strategist in Michigan, tried to get a measure on the state's ballot last year that would force the legislature to consider new voter ID rules, as well as some new campaign finance laws in the state.
"I think that there is not an overwhelming amount of fraud that takes place in elections," he told NPR in an interview. "I think there is some, but I don't think it's overwhelming. And I think it's wise to put in place systems and rules that mitigate the ability to commit fraud."
Traditional voter fraud is exceedingly rare, but Roe said he thought a lot of Michigan voters would agree with him on his ballot measure. However, he said it was hard to get enough volunteers to collect signatures. So, Roe and others had to bring in paid signature gatherers — a decision that he said ultimately beleaguered his effort, as well as the efforts of many candidates running for office.
What happened with Michigan's signature fraud issue
Five candidates running in the state's 2022 Republican gubernatorial primary were removed from the ballot because of fraudulent signatures.
According to a report from the Michigan Bureau of Elections, 36 signature gatherers "submitted fraudulent petition sheets consisting entirely of invalid signatures."
On those submitted sheets election staff found names that were spelled incorrectly and the names of voters who were dead, as well as repeated handwriting characteristics.
Officials also found evidence of "round-tabling." This is when individual canvassers pass around a sheet and each person signs a line so it looks like a bunch of different voters signed it.
"In total, the Bureau estimates that these circulators submitted at least 68,000 invalid signatures submitted across 10 sets of nominating petitions," election officials wrote. "Although it is typical for staff to encounter some signatures of dubious authenticity scattered within nominating petitions, the Bureau is unaware of another election cycle in which this many circulators submitted such a substantial volume of fraudulent petition sheets consisting of invalid signatures, nor an instance in which it affected as many candidate petitions as at present."
Roe said when he heard that various Republican candidates had issues with their petition signatures, he began to look more closely at his effort's signatures.
"We redoubled our efforts to verify and we found somewhere in the neighborhood of [50,000] or 60,000 signatures that we believed were invalid," he said.
Roe was unable to turn in enough valid signatures by the state's deadline to make it on the ballot. He said he blames the signature gatherers he hired to help him.
The rising price of a voter's signature
This is particularly frustrating, Roe said, because it was so expensive to get those signatures. He said in the past, a signature from a paid collector would cost him a few dollars. But that's changed. He said last year signatures cost him upwards of $15 each, which is what he thinks made fraud especially prevalent in Michigan in 2022.
"The thing is, when it's $2 or $3 per signature, you are probably unlikely to engage in that kind of activity," he said. "When it's $15 a signature, there is a high financial motivation to commit fraud."
When it's $15 a signature, there is a high financial motivation to commit fraud.
Experts say there have long been some bad actors in the signature-gathering industry that come and go during every election cycle, but lately the industry has gone through some big changes.
Ted Blaszak, who founded a signature-gathering company called Trailblazing Canvassers, has been in this industry for more than 20 years. He said there's been "a radical increase in cost to qualify a measure and the fees that companies charge clients has spiked enormously" in the past five years.
He said not long ago a signature used to cost a group or candidate roughly $2 or $3. But now it's not uncommon for a single signature to cost upwards of $20 or $30.
"And that's a direct reflection of much higher costs being paid to the individual canvasser as their labor is more in demand," Blaszak said.
Canvassing jobs have always been hard to fill, he said, but it's been particularly hard to fill them since the pandemic and amid low unemployment rates in recent years.
"It's hard work," Blaszak said. "It really is. It's often discouraging work. So, people need to be well compensated to do challenging work in today's economy."
He said this is why his company paid about $50 an hour to workers in his last campaign.
Steps to prevent and prosecute fraud
Paying canvassers per hour instead of for every signature is a policy that goes a long way in preventing fraud, said both Blaszak and Tammy Patrick, CEO of programs with the Election Center, which is the national association of election officials.
"When individuals are compensated by signature, that incentivizes getting signatures to the degree that the voter doesn't understand what they are signing or they are misrepresenting what's being signed or they are encouraging people to sign even if they are not eligible," she said.
Some states want to go further. Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said the signature-gathering industry is a part of elections she has been watching closely as of late.
"The vast majority of signature collectors and petition companies do a good job," she said. "But there are some bad actors and we've seen that play out in Colorado too."
Griswold said she wants to "tighten" the state's laws so she can effectively crack down on those bad actors in the industry.
"Right now, you can only hold a petition company liable if they either authorized or knowingly permitted the violation in question," she said. "So, they were aware that someone was up to no good or they actually authorized it. We are changing that standard to just negligence."
Griswold said she's also hoping to increase penalties against people who commit fraud, and she wants to be able to go after the people who run these companies, not just the workers who turn in bad signatures. In addition, she said Colorado should have rules that bar anyone who has committed any sort of election crime from being able to gather signatures in the state.
In California, lawmakers are considering proposed legislation that would require that paid signature gatherers register with the state and take training courses with the secretary of state's office, among other things.
Wendy Underhill, the director of elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said how a state regulates signature gathering varies quite significantly across the country.
For one, not all states even allow campaigns to pay for signatures. She said some states also ban out-of-state workers from gathering signatures.
"So, there is a lot of control over that piece of it," Underhill said. "And then when you get those signatures, there is a whole other level."
How states verify signatures also varies. And when there is evidence of fraud, Underhill said, states also differ on who can prosecute and what the penalties will be.
Balancing security and access to the ballot
As states reconsider their rules, the Election Center's Patrick said lawmakers should be careful not to create obstacles for volunteer-based efforts to get on a ballot.
"We do need to have security around it, but we need to make sure it doesn't encumber the process in such a way that those from the community don't have a voice in what they are potentially going to be voting on," she said.
If restrictions are too onerous, the courts will also likely get involved, said Rebecca Green, co-director of William and Mary's election law program.
"If this is going to work — in other words, if direct democracy mechanisms are going to work and candidates are going to successfully get on the ballot — it can't be too burdensome," Green said. "I think the courts have demanded that states walk that tightrope."
Green said it's also important to note that signature fraud doesn't have the same level of impact on democracy compared to voter fraud, which remains very rare.
"It's not as dire as in the context of fraud in an actual election," she said. "Because all that is happening in the ballot measure and candidate access petition process is you are qualifying to put either your measure or your candidate on the ballot. The ultimate decision rests with the voters."
Ultimately, though, Patrick said the best way to prevent signature fraud during the petition process is for campaigns to rely more on volunteers who believe in the cause or candidate.
"If you have individuals who are circulating a petition with those motivations — rather than someone who is doing it just because it's a job and they maybe don't care as much about the issue or the candidate — you will find you will have lower rates of invalid signatures," she said.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.