For months now, gay and lesbian activists fighting a ballot initiative that would amend the Massachusetts constitution so as to permanently bar same-sex marriages in the Bay State have long suspected fraud in the ballot-initiative backers’ signature-drive success (see "Speaking Truth to the Homophobic Right," This Just In, November 23). Since last September, the Campaign for Equality — a Boston coalition of about 12 civil-rights and gay-rights groups — has complained that anti-gay-marriage petitioners were using a classic bait-and-switch operation: petitioners told potential ballot signers that they were collecting signatures for an initiative that would outlaw the slaughter of horses for human consumption. In fact, any signatures collected were really going onto anti-gay-marriage ballot sheets. Last November, Attorney General Tom Reilly issued a public warning about such "deceptive practices," saying that "spot checks" had supported the claims. And last month, organizers with Save Our Horses, the Framingham group sponsoring the horse-meat measure, announced that potentially thousands of signatures gathered for the anti-gay-marriage petition may have been meant for the horse petition instead.
Despite these suspicions, however, Campaign for Equality announced last week that it would not challenge the 76,000 certified signatures that were collected for the proposed Protection of Marriage Amendment, otherwise known as Petition E. "It’s a long and arduous process that’s stacked against grassroots activists," explains Arline Isaacson, who serves on the Campaign’s steering committee.
The proposed Protection of Marriage Amendment, which would rewrite the state constitution to define civil marriage as solely a union between a man and a woman, is sponsored by the Waltham-based Massachusetts Citizens for Marriage (MCM). The amendment, which will appear on the 2004 ballot if approved by 25 percent of lawmakers in two successive legislative sessions (a much easier threshold to meet than you would first think), would halt efforts to legalize same-sex marriage or even Vermont-style civil unions. It would also endanger existing legal protections for gay and lesbian couples, such as bereavement leave and hospital-visitation rights. And if the legislature ever gets around to passing the domestic-partnership bill that would allow municipal workers to include same-sex partners in their health benefits, the anti-gay-marriage law would nullify it.
The Campaign had until Friday, January 4, to file an "objection" challenging the validity of Petition E with the Ballot Law Commission, a state agency that hears complaints about ballot initiatives. A formal objection would have required identifying those signatures that the Campaign believes were fraudulently obtained, and then presenting evidence to back up allegations. To that end, the Campaign would have had to compare signature exemplars — the copies of registered voters’ signatures available from local election commissions — to those on Petition E. All of which would entail hiring attorneys and handwriting experts, and finding enough volunteers to help sift through thousands of pages of certified signatures.
According to members, the Campaign needed around $500,000 and several dozen volunteers willing to work around the clock to identify just over 19,000 fraudulent signatures. "It was an impossible hurdle to mount," Isaacson says. A hurdle made more difficult by the fact that the Campaign did not begin receiving the certified signatures from the Secretary of State’s Office until December 14. "We had three weeks," she adds. "That’s an unusually cruel time frame."
Still, the Campaign remains undeterred. This week, it launched a new Web site (www.massequality.org) that allows Massachusetts residents to search the public record of signatures backing Petition E. If residents discover that they unwittingly signed the petition — as opposed to the horse-meat measure — they can report the fraud immediately. The site, Isaacson says, "is an inexpensive way for people to quickly and easily find out if they were victims." Members hope the site will enable them to show how the process for collecting signatures had, in fact, been deceptive.
Meanwhile, Save Our Horses is also planning to pursue legal action because its initiative failed to qualify for the 2002 ballot last month. The horse-meat petition fell short of the required 57,100 signatures by 3174. According to Susan Wagner, chair of Save Our Horses, the group hired the Arizona-based company Ballot Access to gather signatures for it last fall — the same company that MCM director Brian Rudnick reportedly hired. "We believe bait-and-switch tactics contributed to us not getting on the ballot," Wagner says. "We are looking into legal action at this time."
Although the Ballot Law Commission is the only avenue for voters or citizen groups to challenge a ballot initiative, Isaacson and her colleagues hope to garner enough evidence to turn over to the AG’s office for possible criminal action — something that Reilly spokesperson Ann Donlan suggests is lacking to date. "The law is there for the AG’s office to investigate criminally if there’s evidence," Donlan says. "At this time, we would have to review additional information or new evidence about signature fraud to determine what, if any, action there is for us to take."
Even if activists cannot do anything to throw out Petition E, finding out if residents had unwittingly signed the anti-gay amendment is crucial. Such information, after all, goes to show that the ballot initiative isn’t nearly as popular as its proponents have maintained. As Isaacson puts it, "That would blow a hole right through the rhetoric touting that this petition has significant support."