Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Voter registration cards/outsourcing petition

No matter how it turns out, the debate on residential outsourcing will produce one benefit for Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin: It’ll silence those who criticize her for spending $50,000 or $60,000 a year on an in-house governmental affairs coordinator (“lobbyist” in some quarters).

It’s hard to imagine City Council members beefing too much about the Mayor’s hiring practices when they’re about to spend five figures just on determining whether outsourcing opponents qualified the issue for a special election.

Opponents must gather the signatures of 21,828 registered Fresno voters to put the outsourcing question on the ballot. The deadline is 5 p.m. Friday.

This figure — 21,828 — represents 10% of Fresno’s registered voters as of mid-October 2012.

I chatted today with City Clerk Yvonne Spence and Fresno County Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth about what we can expect to happen in the coming days and months. Here’s a summary of my findings and observations:

* Outsourcing opponents will get a receipt when they bring in the petitions on late Friday afternoon. The receipt will verify the number of boxes turned in.

* Each petition can handle up to four signers. The petition has lines for the person’s printed name, signature and address in Fresno.

* As per state law, Spence has final responsibility to verify whether enough valid signatures were gathered to trigger a special election. There’s a 30-day time limit to do the verifying. It’s not a simple process.

* Spence is hiring 10 temporary workers to handle the first step. The workers will make sure the printed name and the written name are the same. They also will make sure that “Fresno” is in the address. Putting any other city in the address eliminates the signature.

* It’s too early to tell how long this will take or what it’ll cost. Council Member Lee Brand said he thinks it’ll take about a week and cost under $10,000. The money will come from the general fund.

* That’s when Spence will turn to Orth’s office for help. All this help will also cost money that’ll come from the general fund. Orth said she expects to have an estimated bill for City Hall by the end of the week.

* With the help of computers, Orth’s staff will determine whether signatures on the petitions belong to registered voters. Signatures on the petition will be compared to signatures on file at the County Clerk’s Office. Addresses on the petition will be compared to addresses on file. Some petition signatures will pass muster, others won’t.

* But Orth and her staff face another chore. Orth said outsourcing opponents have asked for — and received — a very large number of voter registration cards. These cards could play a big role in the success or failure of the petition drive.

* The 218,277 registered Fresno voters as of mid-October 2012 serve only as the yardstick for determining how many signatures must be gathered. Ten percent of 218,277 is (rounding up) 21,828.

* But 218,277 isn’t the extent of the registered-voter universe from which the 10% must be gathered. There are three months between mid-October 2012 and mid-January 2013. Thousands of people can be added to voter rolls in that period and be tapped by signature-gathers without raising the bar of 21,828.

* This fact adds an interesting and largely unexplored dynamic to the petition campaign.

* Let’s say you’re a door-to-door signature-gatherer. You have one advantage. You have in your hand a list of registered voters and their home addresses. You don’t waste your time on non-registered residents. But time also is your disadvantage. Every one-on-one conversation at the front door burns a lot of minutes. Still, at least you know a signature almost certainly will pass the Spence-Orth test.

* Let’s say you’re manning a petition table outside a store. You have one advantage. You make your pitch to a lot of people every hour. The disadvantage is quality. Someone may sign just to be nice, but give an alias or actually live in Nevada. You can bet that a lot of your signatures won’t pass the Spence-Orth test.

* The voter registration card may turn into the signature-gatherers’ secret weapon. America is all about one-person, one vote. And it’s all about enfranchising people. That’s why it’s easy to register to vote.

* You are a signature-gather. Someone comes to your petition table and says, “I live in Fresno. I’d like to sign. But I’m not a registered voter.” You have the person sign the voter registration card. Then that person can sign the petition.

* The advantage: You can be almost 100% certain you’ve got a valid signature.

* At the end of this week, outsourcing opponents will drop off all of their voter registration cards at Orth’s office. The information on these cards must be put into the computer system. Orth will charge City Hall (the general fund) for this labor. After all, she says, the petition drive is the reason for this sudden influx of cards.

* Orth and her staff will make sure the address on the new voter registration cards is a legitimate Fresno address. Each person signing a card does so under penalty of perjury. Otherwise, that’s the extent of the verification process.

* So, to summarize:
Let’s say you’re manning a petition booth outside a store. John Doe walks by.
You: “Say, John, want to sign the petition?”
John: “No can do — not a registered voter.”
You: “No problem. Fill out this voter registration card.”
John: “Great — (scribble, scribble) ‘John Doe, 120 Main Street, Fresno.’”
You: “You’re good to go, John. Now sign the petition.”
John: “My pleasure.”
The County Clerk’s Office will verify that John Doe’s signature on the voter registration card matches John Doe’s signature on the petition (and charge the city for the labor). The County Clerk’s Office will verify that there really is a 120 Main Street in town (and charge the city for the labor). The County Clerk’s Office will put John Doe’s information into the computer (and charge the city for the labor). And on a big piece of paper, the County Clerk’s Office will make another check under the heading “valid petition signatures” (and charge the city for the labor). Outsourcing opponents will be one step closer to 21,828.

* Actually, the address hurdle isn’t all that high. Orth said some of Fresno’s homeless residents are registered voters. She said they give their address as the Fresno Rescue Mission or the Poverello House.”

* Ultimately, Orth will send Spence a summation of her staff’s findings: X number of signatures were valid, Y number weren’t.

* It’s up to Spence to put an official stamp on the signature-gathering effort — the petition drive succeeded or failed.

* Orth said the petitions are not public record. I’m assuming voter registration cards are public record. It’ll be interesting to see if city of Fresno voter registration rolls jumped by the thousands in late December and the first 18 days of January.

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