Signature Gatherers Duped San Diegans Into Signing Up For New Political Party
Kameron Dollinger was walking out of Trader Joe’s on the San Diego State University campus one day last fall when he was approached by a signature gatherer asking if he was registered to vote.
Dollinger wasn’t, and he figured that moment was as good as any to get registered. The man had him fill out a small form with his name, address and driver's license number. But, Dollinger said, the form he was given didn’t have a space for political party.
"I think that should have been my first clue," said Dollinger, who is an SDSU student. "But I wasn't thinking about it, I was just thinking about getting groceries."
What he didn’t realize until he was contacted by KPBS was that he had unwittingly registered as a voter for the Common Sense Party, a new party backed by political heavyweights here and across California.
When KPBS showed Dollinger the registration form that was submitted to the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, he said the handwriting on it wasn’t his. On the form, under political party, the "Other" box is checked and "Common Sense" is written in. Dollinger also didn't recognize that handwriting.
Dollinger was one of 31 people contacted by KPBS who were listed in San Diego County’s voter registration rolls as members of the Common Sense Party. All but one of them said they had no idea they had signed up for the party. That one person signed up online — the other 30 were signed up by signature gatherers.
Possible registration fraud
Registrar of Voters Michael Vu said what happened to Dollinger and the other people KPBS spoke with could amount to fraud.
"The voter needs to be consenting as to what information is on that registration form before they fill it out," Vu said. "And if they don't consent to it, that could potentially rise to the level of registration fraud. And if we get any formal complaints associated with that, we would refer that to the District Attorney's Office or even the (California) Secretary of State's fraud investigation unit to look into."
About 5,000 people have signed up for the Common Sense Party in San Diego County, according to numbers from the Registrar of Voters. The party says they have at least 19,000 members statewide. James Lackritz, an SDSU statistics professor, said based on the number of people contacted by KPBS, it is likely that at least 83% of the Common Sense registrants in the county are unaware they joined the party.
The Common Sense Party was started by former Bay Area Republican Congressman Tom Campbell and former independent state Senator Quentin Kopp to provide an alternative to Republicans and Democrats. The plan is to get 67,000 people who are already registered to vote to change their political party to Common Sense, which will qualify it as an official party on future ballots.
To accomplish this, the party paid signature gatherers as much as $6 per signature to sign up voters. Because the Common Sense Party is not yet official, it does not have to file campaign financial disclosure forms with the state that detail its fundraising and spending.
Julie Meier Wright, a former head of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation and former member of Gov. Pete Wilson's cabinet, is one of the party's co-founders. She claims she didn't know people were duped into joining the party and pledged to look into the allegations by Dollinger and others.
"I will personally make sure that we get to the bottom of this," she said.
'It kind of scares me'
Dollinger, who signed up at Trader Joe's, said he was planning to vote in the Democratic primary, and changed his voter registration after KPBS contacted him. But if he hadn't found out and wanted to vote by mail, he would have had to contact the Registrar of Voters and ask specifically for a ballot with the Democratic primary candidates.
Other voters contacted by KPBS told similar stories. Most said they signed a petition on their college campus or outside a grocery store to "lower rent in California."
Some said the signature gatherer then asked if they were registered to vote. If not, the signature gatherer offered to register them on the spot. But everyone KPBS spoke to who was approached in this manner said the signature gatherer never told them they would become a member of the Common Sense Party.
Shelly Sword, who lives in City Heights, said she signed a petition outside a grocery store and provided her name and address to the signature gatherer, but doesn't remember filling out a voter registration card. She does not want to be a member of the Common Sense Party.
"It kind of scares me that someone can do that and would do that," she said.
Nicholas Foley was signed up on the Cal State San Marcos campus.
"This kid was doing a petition for keeping rent prices low, so I signed it for him, and he said, 'If you're not registered to vote, check this box here,'" Foley said. "I got something in the mail a month ago confirming I'm registered in the state. But I didn't realize I joined a specific party."
Watch your mailboxes
Meier Wright said the Common Sense Party hired the La Jolla Group, a petition drive management firm based in Kearny Mesa, to gather signatures. And, she said, the company assured her that safeguards are in place.
"The La Jolla Group does this random audit to make sure that they are getting good signatures. And then they submit them," she said.
She, however, acknowledged she doesn’t know what the audit entailed. She went on to say people should pay closer attention to their party registration.
"Frankly, when you register for a political party or you re-register for a political party, you get a postcard in the mail from the Registrar of Voters that tells you what party you registered in," Meier Wright said. "So for people to say they don't know when they get a postcard confirmation, I don't understand that."
After KPBS contacted her, Meier Wright said Common Sense leaders began emailing people registered with their party to confirm their registration and let them know their options for voting in the March 3 primary.
Bob Glaser, the head of the La Jolla Group, said the Registrar of Voters had found one instance of a voter being signed up for the Common Sense Party without his or her knowledge. Glaser said it was the signature gatherer's fault.
"The signature gatherer was turned over to the registrar, so that was between them and we don't take any more (registration) cards from that person," he said.
Glaser said the La Jolla Group did not report it to the organizers of the Common Sense Party. Yet, he insisted that the firm’s practices are above board.
"I've been doing this for 35 years. I'm an attorney. I'm fully aware of all of the importance of these (registration) cards," he said. "And we do not allow any type of fraud or any other type of problems."
'Game the system'
Registration records show that a Vista man, Kris Easterling, helped Kameron Dollinger and several others who spoke to KPBS fill out their forms.
Reached by phone, Easterling said he works with the La Jolla Group. He said the signature-gathering business can be difficult to police, and that he is aware signature gatherers have signed people up without their knowledge.
"Because people get paid to sign them up," he said. "So there's going to be people that are not going to be ethical."
Beginning in December or January, Easterling said, the La Jolla Group started requiring registration forms to be completed in the voter's own handwriting.
"There's going to be people doing this to, you know, game the system," he said. "But now they've figured that out."
Easterling, however, denies the claims of Dollinger and others regarding his actions. He said he never filled out someone's form for them and was only following instructions from the La Jolla Group.
"I've never done anything that they have told me that I cannot do," he said. "So if you want to talk to people, those are the people you talk to, they originated all this stuff. I'm just doing what I'm told to do."
Glaser of the La Jolla Group did not return calls from KPBS regarding Easterling’s claims.
Others are also working with the La Jolla Group to gather Common Sense Party registrations. A phone hotline for Voter Outreach Inc., another petition company, says the Common Sense Party is paying $6 per registration, and that registration forms can be dropped off at the La Jolla Group offices.
People signed up are young, live south of 8
Most of the 5,000 San Diegans registered with the Common Sense Party are young and live in less affluent neighborhoods, according to the registration records.
The zip code with the most Common Sense Party voters is in Barrio Logan. The next highest is in Skyline, then City Heights. Almost two-thirds of the Common Sense voters are from communities south of Interstate 8.
Also, 38% of the voters registered with the Common Sense Party in San Diego County are between the ages of 18 and 25 and more than half are under 35. And among those already registered to vote, nearly half were previously Democrats, while less than 10% were Republicans.
This was news to Will Rodriguez Kennedy, the chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party.
"I suspect they are targeting low-information voters, voters in marginalized communities, voters who are dissatisfied in general," he said.
He said he would have volunteers contact people registered with the Common Sense Party and ask them whether they meant to be in the party.
"We can get to the bottom of this quickly," he said.
'At most it's fraud'
It's not illegal to have someone other than a voter fill out a voter registration form, said Vu, the registrar of voters. But, he said, the intent of the law is that people who are incapable of filling out the cards on their own should receive help.
Vu said this is the first he's heard of signature gatherers for a petition also registering people with a specific political party.
Registering people in a party without their knowledge is "at the very least misleading, at most it's fraud," said Jessica Levinson, an ethics and election law professor at Loyola Law School.
California law says in certain circumstances, it's illegal to cause "the completion, alteration, or defacement" of someone's party affiliation declaration on a signed voter registration form without the voter’s consent.
"When someone is paid to gather signatures, the goal is to get signatures," Levinson said, speaking in general, not about a specific person. "They are private actors who want to make a living, they'll say whatever they need to get the signature."