Ensley: Keep eye on petitions

At a time when petitions targeted at overturning a citywide smoking ban were recently reported stolen, Shawnee County election commissioner Elizabeth Ensley recommends circulators take care to obey state laws requiring them to keep a close eye on the signing process.

Ensley, who has been election commissioner since 1992, noted Monday that Kansas statute requires each circulator to sign a statement saying he or she has personally witnessed the signing of the petition by each person whose name appears on it.

Shawnee County election commissioner Elizabeth Ensley stresses that her office compares signatures and checks other things on petitions for election fraud. Here she goes through several pages from a 1994 petition where her office caught hundreds of false signatures.

Shawnee County election commissioner Elizabeth Ensley stresses that her office compares signatures and checks other things on petitions for election fraud. Here she goes through several pages from a 1994 petition where her office caught hundreds of false signatures.

Any circulator who signs a false statement could be convicted of making a false writing, she said.

Ensley’s office has historically verified whether petitions submitted in an effort to force ballot question elections contain names and signatures of registered voters.

She recalled this week how her office found hundreds of forged signatures — including one of Ensley herself — after one such petition was filed in August 1994.

Kansans for Term Limits that month turned in more than 15,000 signatures on petitions gathered by paid and volunteer circulators in an effort to garner the 8,389 required to schedule a public ballot question election on whether to set term limits for Topeka’s mayor and city council members. Attorney General Bob Stephan subsequently ruled the city wasn’t obligated to put the question on the ballot if there were questions about the procedures followed in acquiring signatures.

Ensley said her office looked over the petitions and found “a lot of irregularities.”

For example, she said, many signers gave home addresses at locations where no homes exist, such as addresses on the Washburn University campus.

On one petition page, purported to contain signatures of people all living on the same street, each signer had misspelled the street’s name.

On another, all of the signatures from top to bottom were in alphabetical order, “which just doesn’t happen on real petitions,” Ensley said.

The petition even contained a forgery of Ensley’s name. She knew she hadn’t signed it.

Ensley said her office helped the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices with an investigation of the petition circulators that resulted in five felony convictions for making a false writing, five felony diversions and a misdemeanor diversion.

But such cases are the exception rather than the rule, as Ensley’s office usually finds no criminal wrongdoing as it works to verify petition signatures.

She said city clerk Brenda Younger’s office would initially receive any petition resulting from an ongoing drive Topekans Against the Ban is mounting seeking to overturn a clean air ordinance the city council approved Sept. 29. The measure took effect Dec. 4.

Topekans Against the Ban continues to gather signatures on the petition seeking to force a public ballot question election over whether to overturn the smoking ban. Topekans Against the Ban says on its Web site that it must acquire 5,744 valid signatures of registered Topeka voters by April 13 to force the council to either overturn the ordinance or give the public a vote on whether to overturn it. The site indicated Tuesday that 3,838 signatures had been gathered as of Dec. 7.

Ensley said that if Topekans Against the Ban submits the petition to Younger and she sends it to the election office, Ensley’s employees would check the signatures to see if they match the signatures of those same people on documents on file, including the form residents fill out and sign to apply to register to vote.

Gail Trembley, an organizer of the petition drive, says it has recently encountered difficulties that include a slowing in the gathering of signatures and the theft last week of several petitions from businesses. Trembley filed a report with the Topeka Police Department. Police said they took an “incident” report of the type they generally fill out when they see no clear criminal wrongdoing but think the situation merits further review as to whether criminal activity was involved.

source: www.cjonline.com

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