When the effort to repeal Portland's publicly funded campaigns officially died in mid-February, supporters immediately began crying foul: In their eyes, the petition didn't die because of signature gatherers' incompetence or lack of voter support—but because opponents of the repeal intentionally signed multiple times in order to get the petition disqualified.
"Sabotage" was the word used by Jason Williams of the Taxpayers Association of Oregon—which donated $10,000 worth of direct mailings to the effort.
The group behind the repeal backed him up. "There are some tidbits of hearsay from here and there... that we're looking into," First Things First (FTF) Committee spokeswoman Ellie Booth told the Oregonian. Two days later, she added, "Something is fishy here."
What's fishy is that there appears to be little evidence supporting any claim of sabotage.
Last Thursday, February 16, county and city officials certified their examination of the signatures turned in by First Things First. Using two statistical samplings, they determined that out of 40,988 signatures, only 26,067 were valid—the repeal needed 26,691 to make the May ballot. Besides a large number of signatures from people not registered to vote in Portland (a no-no), First Things First's biggest hit came from duplicate and triplicate signatures, which, through a complicated mathematical formula used by elections officials, take substantial numbers away from the final count.
On Friday, the day after the results were made official, with rumors of sabotage wafting through the media and blogosphere, the Mercury contacted many of the people who were listed in the report as having signed more than once.
Some of them didn't even remember signing multiple times, although they admitted it was possible. Others said they signed multiple times because they felt pressured by the signature gatherers—paid employees of a company called Democracy Resources. Others said that signature gatherers came to their door on more than one occasion, and they signed just to get them to leave. One person even said that he signed twice because the repeal backers mailed him two separate petitions. (The Oregonian reported similar results.)
While this doesn't necessarily prove there was no foul play, it begs the question: What evidence do the repeal backers have for making such claims of wrongdoing?
Williams, an anti-tax activist, backed away from his sabotage statement when questioned by the Mercury.
"I don't have a good read on this particular measure. I just wasn't close to the operation," he said. "I don't have any proof to say that this is a conspiracy with someone on the grassy knoll—it was just my first hunch."
He later added that the seemingly high number of duplicates could be because multiple signature gatherers were knocking on the same doors, and that FTF's failure to check for duplicate signatures before turning them in could have played a role in the results.
For weeks, FTF ignored requests for comment by the Mercury, until spokesperson Booth was tracked down at her day job at Gard & Gerber, the public relations firm that also employs city council candidate Ginny Burdick. Incidentally, Gard & Gerber was the firm hired to spin away revelations that Neil Goldschmidt had an affair with a minor.
Despite telling the media last week that "something was fishy," Booth was "hesitant" to talk about specific evidence while the group is "looking through the signatures."
"It's too early to speculate," she said. "But it appears there are abnormalities with duplicates and triplicates." The biggest red flag, Booth said, was the sheer number of multiple signatures, which "has never happened before" with Democracy Resources. The group will be sending whatever they find to the secretary of state for a possible investigation.
Sarah Wetherson of the anti-repeal coalition Vote No Power Grab dismissed the veiled allegations against her organization and the League of Women Voters, a partner in the campaign.
"I think it's really clear this thing didn't get on the ballot because people in Portland didn't want it," she said. "It would be better if [First Things First] would come to the conclusion we have... and be good sports and shake hands instead of accusing government watchdog groups like League of Women Voters of sabotage."