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Marriage petition backers answer questions on signatures

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BOSTON —Supporters and opponents of traditional marriage accused each other of unfairly collecting and blocking signatures for the petition drive that would allow Massachusetts voters to define marriage in 2008, during a hearing at the Statehouse Oct. 18. The Joint Committee on Election Laws, co-chaired by Rep. Edward M. Augustus Jr., D-Worcester, and Rep. Anthony Petruccelli, D-East Boston, called for the hearing to address complaints that paid signature gatherers were obtaining signatures illegally.

Kris Mineau, a spokesman for VoteOnMarriage.org and president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, responded to legislators’questions saying that gatherers had been trained to conduct the effort within the law and had been found in full compliance by the attorney general. He then fired back accusations that same-sex marriage supporters have used intimidation to thwart the signature gathering process.

Nine Massachusetts voters testified that gatherers were using “bait and switch”tactics to obtain more signatures. Two of the nine were among 13 people who filed formal complaints with the secretary of state. Many said that signature gatherers would “bait”voters with a petition about allowing the sale of alcohol in grocery stores. Then the gatherers would trick them into signing the marriage petition by saying their signature was required twice on the beer and wine petition. Only one signature is required on a petition.

“Everything indicated this was a single petition,”said one woman.

“It was my first petition,”said a Northeastern University student who recently turned 18. “I really felt deceived.”

Marc Solomon, political director of the gay rights organization MassEquality, testified that his group has received what he called 151 “substantiated”complaints of paid signature gatherers using ‘‘bait and switch’’tactics or misleading language to trick people into signing the marriage petition.

“It’s rampant,”Solomon said. “It’s happening in every corner of the state.”

Mineau vowed to cooperate in efforts to find any wrongdoing among the paid signature gatherers, but maintained that no such tactics had been discovered. Professional petition gatherers are independent contractors who are paid per signature and are often working for more than one company and on more than one petition drive at the same time, he added.

“I want to clearly state on our behalf that signature collectors that are working under our direction do not engage in this or any similar tactic. They are trained to collect signatures in an honest, respectful manner in full compliance with Massachusetts election law,”he said. “If there are any violations of the law, we want them prosecuted to the fullest extent.”

Additionally, Mineau said that many same-sex marriage supporters are using their own tactics to impede the signature gathering effort. Two firms have been hired to come to Massachusetts and block petition gatherers and many people had disrupted the gathering efforts, causing both the protesters and signature gatherers to be asked to leave.

One woman in her sixties was physically assaulted while gathering signatures and filed a police report, Mineau said.

Others had defaced petitions, writing “for shame”on them, an illegal act punishable by $1,000 fine or one year in prison. Mineau said 67 signatures were invalidated as a result.

“That’s 67 residents whose rights were violated,”he added.

Additionally, the first 30 signers of the petition have been harassed through e-mails, unsolicited pornography and memberships to homosexual organizations after a Web site, KnowThyNeighbor.org, published their names. Protesters against the marriage petition have picketed outside churches with the Web site’s slogan, “When you sign, it’s online.”

“We have been provoked and harassed, we believe beyond measure, for simply asking the citizens of our commonwealth to have an opportunity to vote on the definition of marriage. We’ve been doing this in good faith, exercising our fundamental rights to let the people vote,”he added.

Michael Arno, president of Arno Political Consultants, a California firm that was brought in to assist with the petition drive described the anti-petition actions as “an organized effort.”

“You’ve got a process that’s being attacked on the basis of keeping it off the ballot,”he said.

Arno added that he has received complaints about paid signature gatherers in Western Massachusetts despite the fact none of his workers has been sent there.

Mineau said VoteOnMarriage.org brought in a consulting firm because Massachusetts is the most difficult state in which to conduct a successful petition drive. A large number of signatures, 65,825, need to be gathered in a short amount of time. So far, VoteOnMarriage has collected over 23,000 signatures and has until Nov. 23 to collect the rest.

Legislators questioned Mineau on why VoteOnMarriage.org needed to hire a consulting firm, especially in light of the fact that all the allegations stemmed from the use of paid signature gatherers. Rep. Steven Walsh, D-Lynn, said he had spoken with a woman gathering signatures at his church and had a civil discussion with her, although he disagreed with her position. Walsh said he did not see the need for paid signature gatherers.

“Our goal is to do that [collect signatures] predominantly through our volunteers, grassroots across the state, but we felt that we needed the Arno company’s expertise because few of us have ever done a signature drive,”Mineau said.

With a staff of five, Mineau said it is impossible for his organization to do all the legwork necessary for the drive. Most significantly, the petitions need to be certified in each signer’s town before they are delivered to the secretary of state for final verification. The signature gathering process is already so restrictive that any further constraints would be the “death knell”of the citizen’s initiative, said Mineau.

Angela McElroy, a former employee of two companies that are subcontractors of Arno, claimed that she had been trained in ‘‘bait and switch’’tactics and used them to gain signatures for the marriage petition.

McElroy further testified that she had quit after a week because she felt guilty about lying to voters—although she also said she had been using the same tactics in Florida and came to Massachusetts when she heard using these illegal tactics was easier in this state.

Arnot said McElroy was fired for theft.

Jeannie Berg, former director of Oregon Voter Education Project, agreed with McElroy’s assertion that the signature gathering process in Massachusetts is easily manipulated. She suggested more restrictions including a regulation that signature collectors be paid a stipend or hourly wage to stop them from being motivated by the number of signatures collected.

Aaron Toleos, co-creator of KnowThyNeighbor.org, said his Web site would provide people with access to the names of signers so that anyone who was tricked into signing the petition will know that his or her signature was collected. However, this information will also be available from the secretary of state’s office.

Additionally, Toleos said the Web site was created to promote a “civil, legal discourse”between those who support traditional marriage and those who support same-sex marriage.

“The meaningful access provided by KnowThyNeighbor.org also means that citizens will be empowered to review the list of petition signers to see if there is anyone they know. Can you imagine continuing to do business with a local merchant who has supported legislation to define your family as inferior?”he asserted.

Toleos did not explain how users of the Web site could distinguish between legitimate signers whom he said were not worthy of support and what he estimated were “thousands”of people whose names were likely to erroneously appear on petitions.

Rep. Philip Travis, D-Rehoboth, one of the first 30 signers of the petition, testified that both sides of the debate had made good points about changes needed to improve the petition process. While signature gatherers who use ‘‘bait and switch’’tactics must be prosecuted, it is also important for voters to know they should always read both sides of the petition and never need to sign a petition twice, he said.

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