AG investigating tax vote initiative's signature gathering
SALEM — The Oregon attorney general's office has opened a criminal investigation into signature gathering practices for an initiative that would impose stricter voting requirements on lawmakers who want to raise taxes.
The investigation is unlikely to interfere with that measure going before voters in November, however, according to the state elections division.
Known as Initiative Petition 31, the measure would amend the state constitution to mandate stricter voting requirements for the Legislature to pass certain tax measures.
Our Oregon, a progressive political coalition, and Connea Derber, a former paid circulator for Ballot Access LLC, allege that while she was working for the company she was paid below minimum wage, that another circulator improperly attested signature sheets that Derber collected and that Derber was allowed to circulate a petition without being properly registered.
Ballot Access' owner, Lee Vasche, denies those allegations and says they are politically motivated.
Our Oregon and Derber filed its complaint Monday with the Secretary of State's Office and the Bureau of Labor and Industries.
The next day, the Secretary of State's Elections Division Director Steve Trout asked the attorney general to investigate whether elections law violations occurred by "circulators, and/or others, including the circulating company employing certain of the subjects," according to a July 3 letter provided to the EO/Pamplin Capital Bureau by the Department of Justice.
It's not clear when the DOJ investigation will be complete.
Once the DOJ investigates and reaches a conclusion on the criminal investigation, the secretary of state's office will look into possible civil violations.
It's unlikely that the investigation could prevent IP 31 from going before voters in November, though, Trout says.
If the AG finds criminal wrongdoing, and if someone believes that means the measure shouldn't be on the ballot, they could challenge it in Marion County Circuit Court.
Trout said that while allegations are common in the initiative petition process, he has not seen a court intervene in an initiative petition getting to the ballot.
"I've never seen a court step in and change things," Trout said.
Additionally, the election is in just four months. The state and counties must move swiftly to prepare voting materials.
The petition would still have sufficient signatures to make it to the ballot even if the signatures questioned by the complaint were taken out, Trout said.
The measure needed 117,578 valid signatures, and petitioners turned in what the secretary of state deemed were 124,428 valid signatures, according to the secretary of state's office.
"Let's let the administration of justice take its course," Trout said. "Let's make sure that the attorney general gathers the appropriate information, that both sides get to tell their side and that the legal process protects both parties and that we get to the truth."
Derber, who filed the complaint, alleges that another Ballot Access circulator, Ancie Mendez, paid her $10 per hour to collect signatures on IP 31. Derber also claims that Mendez would sign off on sheets that Derber collected. Mendez could not be immediately reached for comment late Friday.
Ballot Access Operations Manager Susan Mays told the EO/Pamplin Capital Bureau on Tuesday that Mendez had an "exemplary record." Mendez is no longer working for Ballot Access because they are currently not gathering signatures, Mays said.
Vasche, Ballot Access' owner, maintains that Derber was told by the company that she could not circulate petitions until she was registered to do so. He says she was registered to circulate the petitions June 5 and that she was paid $45 per hour.
"This situation ... has nothing to do with our company," Vasche said Thursday. "It is between these two women who had an arrangement between themselves that we did not authorize and never would have authorized."
After working on collecting signatures for IP 31, Derber then collected petition signatures for Fieldworks, a company paid to circulate IP 25, a corporate tax transparency measure supported by union groups, according to a spokeswoman for Our Oregon. Supporters of that measure withdrew their efforts this week.