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County officials scrutinize signatures to ensure votes are valid
Tami Green and Cindy Carpenter have keen eyes for signatures.
They notice the sweep of a final “s” or the circle that tops the letter “i” of a signer’s name, and the way a capital “J” is formed.
The two women are not detectives, nor do they give expert witness testimony in court.
Green is the Baker County Clerk and Carpenter is her elections deputy.
They don’t come by their discriminating skills for handwriting analysis naturally. They’ve been trained by an expert — Green has attended three 2ﬁ-hour sessions and Carpenter has attended two.
The training was provided by Heather Carlson of Northwest Forensics at Chehalis, Wash. Carlson is a forensic document examiner who works as an independent contractor. She provides training through the Oregon Elections Division to prepare county clerks and their staffs to verify signatures on petitions and ballots, Green said.
Carlson provides instruction on the characteristics of a genuine signature. Her students are instructed to look at the pressure, fluidity and overall quality of a signature as well as other characteristics in determining its authenticity.
Green and Carpenter put their expertise to work this summer as they reviewed more than 1,000 signatures collected in an effort to place measures on the ballot aimed at removing two Baker School Board members from office.
The petition drive, led by Kerry McQuisten of Baker City, was organized to recall Lynne Burroughs, board chairwoman, and director Mark Henderson.
The effort fell just short in the first round of signature collections after Green and her staff disqualified a portion of the signatures for a variety of reasons.
Petitions submitted to the Clerk’s Office by the July 30 deadline were short by three signatures to place Burroughs’ name on a recall ballot with 910 valid signatures gathered of the 913 needed.
The petitioners collected 900 valid signatures — of again 913 needed — supporting a recall of Henderson.
The total number of signatures submitted to the Clerk’s Office was 1,066 to recall Burroughs and 1,059 to recall Henderson.
Of those numbers, the Clerk’s Office disqualified some petitions for irregularities such as the circulator writing over the date on which the 10-line signature petition was completed. Oregon law requires that the petition be dated on or after the date of the last signature and it cannot be changed. Some petitions also contained duplicate signatures.
When a petition sheet is disqualified, all the signatures on the sheet — up to 10 — are invalidated.
After disqualifying some of the petition sheets, the Clerk’s Office was left with 1,040 signatures to verify on the petition to recall Burroughs, and 1,021 to recall Henderson.
Six signatures to recall Burroughs did not match the signers’ voter registration cards on file at the Clerk’s Office, and four signatures did not match on petitions to recall Henderson.
Publicity about the disqualifications has led to public concern about the process, Green and Carpenter said in an interview Monday.
“We want to reassure people that if a signature isn’t exact, we’re not throwing the ballot out and not counting their signature,” Green said.
Carpenter added that the staff looks for every reason to count a signature rather than to reject it.
“There must be more similarities than differences,” Green said.
She added that her office works for the voters and that she and her staff follow state law to qualify petitions.
“I’ve worked really hard these last 12 years to gain everybody’s trust,” Green said. “It’s in the recall manual. It’s clear. It’s not gray there.”
Signature verification begins with a review of the petitions by the Centralized Voter Registration computer program, which compares voter registration signatures with petition signatures.
The two women said thanks to their training and experience they usually can spot discrepancies at first glance.
When that happens they pull the actual voter registration card from a file kept in the Clerk’s Office.
“We double verify,” Carpenter said. “We never make a decision alone.”
And if necessary, they seek a third opinion from Karen Phillips, recording deputy in the Clerk’s Office.
The process and the problem that caused some petitions and some signatures to be thrown out are not particular to this recall effort, the women said.
“This is nothing different,” Green said.
“We followed the law,” Carpenter added.
The largest number of signatures that did not qualify on both petitions were from people who were not registered to vote.
Sixty-six non-registered voters signed petitions to recall Burroughs and 59 nonregistered voters signed petitions to recall Henderson.
Names printed — rather than written in cursive — on the signature line also do not count on the petitions. There were three of those on Burroughs’ petitions and seven on Henderson’s.
Some signatures were disqualified because the signers were inactive voters. In some cases they had not voted in two federal elections or they had moved and their ballots were returned as undeliverable and no attempt had been made to update their voter registration. (There were 38 of these on petitions to recall Burroughs, and 39 on petitions to recall Henderson).
Green said her office is obligated by law to notify voters who are placed in inactive status. Confirmation cards that are automatically forwarded and include a postage-paid reply card are sent.
An automatic log also verifies that such notifications are sent, Carpenter said.
Green said that despite criticism from recall proponents and concern bordering on paranoia from some community residents, she wants to reassure Baker County voters that her office will notify them if there is a problem with their signatures or if they have been placed in inactive voter status.
And she says petition signing and casting a ballot in an election are two different matters. Voters have 10 days after an election to rectify problems with signatures and if they do so, their votes will be counted, Green said.
Although their first effort was unsuccessful, the recall committee is again working to accumulate the required number of signatures to place recall measures on a future ballot.
The next deadline for submitting the required 913 signatures for each petition is Nov. 7.
Green said circulators could submit petitions before that date if they have collected the entire 913 signatures needed. They then could continue gathering more as a buffer against falling short again until the deadline.
Green added that she encourages her constituents to visit her office or call if they have questions.
The County Clerk’s Office is on the first floor of the Courthouse at 1995 Third St. The number is 541-523-8207.
“If you have a question, please come in or call,” she said. “I’d rather people be comfortable with the process.”