By Zachary Gorchow
Executive Editor and Publisher
Posted: March 20, 2023 9:22 AM
Elections Director Jonathan Brater is recommending significant changes to how the Bureau of Elections canvasses initiative petitions and candidate petitions to access the ballot following an outside review.
In a memo dated Tuesday to the Board of State Canvassers, Mr. Brater said the bureau hired the Rehmann Group to review its petition canvassing procedures that have largely stood in place without notable change since 1980. Questions arose about the petition process, particularly on the candidate side, after the bureau recommended the disqualification of five of the 10 Republican candidates for governor who filed petitions in 2022.
The bureau found widespread fraud in the five candidates' petition signatures and recommended the board disqualify them on the basis of the pattern of fraud from certain circulators. It did not review every signature from these candidates for validity, saying there were too many to review and based on the pattern of fraud from certain circulators, it should disqualify them.
Unlike initiative petitions, where the bureau pulls a sample of 500 signatures to determine whether a group collected enough valid signatures from registered voters, the bureau reviews all candidate petition sheets and does not use sampling.
Mr. Brater recommended the board approve the changes recommended by Rehmann. That includes adopting the same sampling procedure for candidates as is used for initiative petitions. If approved, the bureau would pull a 750-signature sample of signatures for candidates required to file at least 15,000 valid signatures from registered voters to access the ballot for a statewide office.
For initiative petitions, the recommendations include eliminating the face review prior to sampling and the shuffling of the petition sheets. They also include pulling one, larger sample instead of the current 500/2,000 two-stage process sometimes needed and replacing the software program used to identify and pull signatures for a sample.
In his memo, Mr. Brater said in the past the bureau did not need to expend a great amount of time reviewing individual signatures on candidate nominating petitions but that changed in 2022 as a result of the fraud scandal.
"Staff spent hundreds of hours attempting to validate signatures," he wrote. "In reality, given the volume of filings, it was not possible to look up each and every signature submitted by the fraudulent petition circulators to individually verify that each and every signature was fraudulent, although all of the signatures reviewed were fraudulent."
Rehmann said to achieve the same plus or minus 2.3 percentage point error margin at a 90 percent confidence factor used in statewide initiative petitions, 750 signatures should be pulled as a sample from candidate petitions.
Mr. Brater said this system would enable staff to better assess signature accuracy and detect fraud.
"To whatever extent invalid signatures were submitted as part of candidate nominating petitions – whether through circulator fraud or invalid signatures that the circulators did not know were invalid – these signatures would be reflected in the representative sample and inform the bureau's recommendation to the board on whether or not to certify," he wrote. "This would, in turn, provide greater confidence as the valid number of signatures contained within the filing."
Another significant change would be scrapping the "face review" now done of initiative petitions prior to a sample being pulled.
Under current practice, bureau staff sort and review petition sheets and signatures prior to the pulling of a 500-signature sample. The review is designed to total the number of potentially valid signatures on all sheets and stamp a number on each one as well as confirm the mandatory elements of each sheet are present and correct. Invalid sheets are removed from the universe of signatures eligible for the sample.
Rehmann found the face review process to be time-consuming and to have no statistical effect on the results of sampling. A simulation Rehmann conducted found that the results of a hypothetical petition using face review and not using face review had statistically insignificant differences in valid signatures.
"This step of the process alone is extremely time-consuming and burdensome for staff; it accounts for nearly 66 percent of the 60-day process," Mr. Brater wrote. "For example, in two statewide petition filings in 2022, staff spent approximately 2,500 personnel hours over 14 business days to conduct face review of two statewide petitions."
Under current practice, the bureau starts out with a 500-signature sample. If the validity percentage falls into a gray area below automatic certification and above automatic rejection, the bureau then pulls a 2,000-siganture sample for a final review.
Rehmann recommended going to a single, larger sample instead of the two-stage process. It did not indicate a number.
"Rehmann found that eliminating the two-stage review process in favor of gathering a larger, initial sample would create an efficiency without negatively impacting the current 90 percent confidence factor," Mr. Brater wrote. "In the past, in instances where a second, larger sample had to be pulled, an extreme burden was placed onto staff, sponsors, and challengers because it left very little time in the calendar. Rehmann concluded that there were significant administrative time savings by drawing a larger sample immediately, and that coupled with the time savings of eliminating the face review and shuffling processes, the additional time to review the increased signatures would be offset."
On software, Rehmann said the current system cannot be upgraded because it was developed in the 1980s using a platform no longer supported by modern PCs. It did not offer a specific recommendation for a new software but said one possibility is Visual Basic for Applications in Microsoft Excel.
Rehmann's report said the state's current overall system of drawing random samples "remains fundamentally sound" but "opportunities exist to improve its efficiency without sacrificing accuracy."