Think again

Bill Sizemore’s born-again accountability


At first glance, it looked like a case of born-again accountability. Or jailhouse redemption. Or just plain chutzpah.

Here was Bill Sizemore, the guy whose organization was convicted of racketeering for using forged and falsely-obtained signatures on initiative petitions, complaining that we haven’t done enough to clean up the initiative process.

Sizemore’s complaint, highlighted in an opinion piece in the Oregonian last month, challenged the effects of Measure 26, the Initiative Integrity Act, which was sponsored by Oregon’s unions and approved by Oregon voters in 2002. I was a chief petitioner for that measure, along with community activists Ellen Lowe and Bob Davis.

We filed Measure 26 largely in response to what Sizemore and his Initiatives-R-Us signature gathering business was doing to the initiative process.

Sizemore’s initiative business plan was very much in keeping with his free market philosophy — use contractors and subcontractors to ply your petitions and pay what it takes to exchange dollars for signatures, no questions asked. As business plans go, it was cost-effective. But it was also corrupting.

Out-of-state mercenaries, who were experienced in high-volume petitioning, swarmed here. Slick operators used bait-and-switch tactics to trick voters into signing petitions for initiatives they did not support. And forgers were rewarded with cash on the table. Our signatures became street-corner commodities.

We had to thread a legal needle to rein in these practices, since paying for signature gathering had been determined by the courts to be a constitutionally-protected exercise of free speech rights. If Measure 26 had been written to ban all forms of paid signature gathering, it would never have passed muster with the courts. But by focusing on the method of payment and the corrupting effects of that method, Measure 26 struck the right balance. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year that Measure 26’s prohibition on per-signature payments “serves the important regulatory interest in preventing fraud and forgery in the initiative process.”

Sizemore ignored that important distinction in his Oregonian piece, characterizing Measure 26 as a ban on all forms of paid signature gathering.

And he ignored his own recent history as well.

During the 2002 election cycle, Sizemore told a TV reporter that he was not responsible for the practices of the individuals who were carrying his initiative petitions, because they were independent contractors over whom he had no control. No questions asked, no responsibility.

Sizemore continued to deny any responsibility for his signature gatherers, even when two of them went to jail for forgery and election law violations. It took a lengthy racketeering case, brought by the Oregon Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers-Oregon, to prove otherwise.

Sizemore mentioned none of this in his Oregonian piece, of course. Instead, he tried to promote himself as a defender of the initiative process and disparaged Measure 26 as a tool to make petitioning more difficult for those who promote conservative causes.

He even tried to argue that there were fewer problems with petitioning back in the good old days before Measure 26, citing the higher number of signature gatherers caught committing forgery and fraud this year compared to four years ago.

But now that Measure 26 is in effect, all sponsors of initiatives must attest that they are not paying bounties or commissions for signatures. And this is why Sizemore is paying more attention to the practices of those who carry his petitions.

A signature collected by a volunteer still costs the same, no matter what your political leanings. And those who pay for signatures now have to be responsible for how they’re collected, even if it costs more to finance a responsible campaign operation than to put money on the street to troll for signatures.

So if Sizemore and his colleagues are now presenting themselves as defenders of the initiative process and bragging that they “caught and turned in nearly 20 people for forging signatures” this year, I’d say that’s pretty good evidence that Measure 26 is doing its job

Clarification: In my July 7 column on higher education, I wrote that the state used to contribute $3 in operating funds for our public universities for every $1 that resident students paid in tuition, and that the state’s contribution has since declined to 60 cents on the dollar. I have since discovered that the data on tuition revenue did not distinguish between in-state and out-of-state tuition. So my description of the decline is state support from $3 to 60 cents on the dollar should have referred to all tuition collected, not just tuition collected from resident students.

Tim Nesbitt is former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. For more information, check out the Oregon AFL-CIO online at