Secretary of State spokeswoman Lynn Bartels sparked outrage on Twitter last week by posting a photo of empty boxes.
The picture, coupled with the caption “Proponents of fracking measures turned in lots of boxes with very few petitions in them,” angered the anti-fracking activists who had submitted their petitions to qualify initiatives 75 and 78 for November’s ballot with just minutes to spare the previous day.
“The only reason to send out a tweet like that is to cast doubt that we are going to make it,” said Suzanne Spiegel, the head fundraiser for Yes for Health and Safety Over Fracking.
The anti-fracking campaigns are confident that they have enough names to qualify. Environmental news site EcoWatch even reported victory last week, with the headline “2 Colorado Anti-Fracking Initiatives Move to November Ballot.”
And yet, even without Bartels’ tweet, there’s plenty of doubt.
Yes for Health and Safety says it gathered about 100,000 signatures for each measure – more than the 98,492 per measure they need to qualify the ballot, but just barely. The small margin has built suspense around the signature count, which Secretary of State Wayne Williams’ office must release by September 7.
The battle to place both measures on the ballot has been hard fought, with oil and gas industry opponents pouring in millions of dollars to combat the largely grassroots effort, whose supporters gathered signatures up until the last minute — often, they say, amid name-calling and intimidation from opponents.
If passed, the measures would enforce mandatory setbacks near fracking wells and give communities the power (known as “local control”) to ban the extraction practice. The race for signatures has garnered national media attention, and the stakes are high enough that Yes for Health and Safety filed a formal complaint requesting that Bartels play no role in the signature verification process. (A separate ballot access team, not Bartels, verifies all petition signatures.)
Bartels, who spoke on CBS news about the empty boxes last week, chose not to comment on the tweet further for this story. She says she simply snapped the photo when she happened to pass the ballot access office and noticed the boxes.
“It was unusual that there were so many empty boxes,” she said, but “it may mean something and it may mean nothing.”
Bartels referred The Independent to Secretary of State ballot access manager Joel Albin, who has assessed ballot issues for the state for almost six years, to explain just how the verification process works.
Albin says the ballot access team will first go through and count every single completed signature line. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that the fracking initiatives turned in 100,000 signatures each. Next, the team has to verify a random, five percent sample of these signatures for accuracy. A computer program randomly generates a list of specific signature lines to check — in this case, 5,000 of them — and staffers manually go through the petitions to verify each one.
The two main reasons for signatures to be thrown out, Albin says, would be that a respondent’s name doesn’t match the address on their voter registration or that the information given is simply too sloppy to read.
Albin’s team doesn’t take the appearance of the signatures themselves into account — they simply don’t have the time to try to compare handwriting to look for fraud. (If they notice suspicious signatures, they’ll refer them to the Attorney General, but those don’t actually count against the 5 percent validation check.)
The team then uses the validation rate for the sample to determine the expected number of valid signatures. With 100,000 signatures, a 99 percent validity rate would mean 99,000 valid signatures — enough, if just barely, to qualify for November’s ballot.
But there are two things to keep in mind here: First, validity rates are usually much lower – somewhere between 65 and 75 percent, as Albin tells it.
“Anybody who gets a validity rate of over 75 percent has done a good job,” he said.
Though there’s a high bar for the anti-fracking initiatives, they aren’t doomed. Compared to some of this year’s other campaigns, 75 and 78 relied much more heavily on volunteers than on paid circulators. And both Albin and Spiegel say that matters.
“When you’re running a campaign that’s largely a volunteer effort … your verification rate tends to be a lot higher because the people who are circulating for you are so invested,” Spiegel said. “We expect to have a much higher rate [than average].”
“Perhaps they know the people who are circulating and have a little bit more control,” said Albin.
The second thing to keep in mind is that, because the Secretary of State’s office only verifies a small sample, they have to account for a margin of error. To officially qualify, campaigns must actually be found to have 110 percent of the required valid signatures. If the margins are slimmer than that, the Secretary of State’s office has to go back and verify every single signature by hand.
That means that, even if their signatures have a 100 percent validity rate, initiatives 75 and 78 would have to have turned in more than 108,000 signatures each to qualify using only the sample. Based on the campaign’s own estimates of about 100,000, that seems unlikely.
That leaves two potential outcomes: Either the initiatives will fail to make the ballot outright, or all the signatures will have to be counted by hand. That’s right: After a long, controversial and expensive race, the best case scenario is a recount.
Spiegel isn’t yet willing to consider the possibility of failure. “Right now, we’re just focusing on making sure that this process is done fairly, that it’s impartial,” she said.
Albin says they needn’t worry about his office’s professionalism. “We have many layers of people reviewing that work to make sure nothing untoward is happening,” he said. That includes employees at an external, Pueblo-based firm that contracts with the Secretary of State’s office.
Said Albin: “If the group thinks something is un-kosher in our process, they have 30 days to challenge it in court.”
Photo credit: Sebastien Wiertz, Creative Commons, Flickr