Ad Aims to Scare Voters From Signing Ballot Measure Petitions

By Patrick Healy and Bill French
|  Sunday, Jul 31, 2011  |  Updated 9:16 PM PDT
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A new campaign to change the ballot initiative process uses scary tactics.

Patrick Healy and David Gregory

A new campaign to change the ballot initiative process uses scary tactics.

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Accompanied by a scary new web page called Californians Against Identity Theft, a new radio ad targets voters who might want to sign petitions for ballot measures.

"I may have given my personal information to a criminal," exclaims the female voice in the radio spot after a male voice scolds her for signing a petition.  The spot is in rotation on KNX, among other stations.

The message is, if  you fear identity theft, don't sign.  Ever.

"That's wrong," reacted Argie Plakas of Sherman Oaks, when she heard about it.

Other voters questioned the campaign's premise and agenda.

"Any scare tactics on identity theft is just part of the over-all voter suppression effort,  said James Lockhart of Sherman Oaks.

"The claims of identity theft are totally false," said Pedro Morillas, Legislative Director for CalPIRG, the California Public Interest Research Group. "I'm not sure what the political purposes beyond this campaign are, but the purpose is stop people from interacting with petition gatherers.

The webpage never identifies who's behind Californians Against Identity theft, but Robert Balgenorth, President of the State Building and Construction Trades Council  of California, acknowledged he's a supporter.  Balgenorth said he's long wanted reform of the initiative process, expecially increased oversight of signature gatherers.

"There's really no oversight in our state at all," said Balgenorth. "Anyone who qualifies to be a registered voter can go out and gather signatures."

Information posted on the website cites a 2005 state legislative report that called the information gathered for petitions a potential "identity theft starter kit," but was hard-pressed to provide examples of actual identity theft carried out by signature gatherers or others with access to the information.

The right to petition to overturn laws, place new measures on the ballot, and recall elected officials was granted to California voters exactly a century ago as part of reforms championed by the legendary progressive Governor Hiram Johnson.

Near the end of the new radio spot, the female voice declares, "That's it!  I'm not signing any more of those petitions."

Balgenorth said he did not develop the campaign, and is not an officer of the new non-profit organization Californians Against Identity Theft.  An email to the website's contact address elicited a reply from Tom Adams, a retired Bay Area attorney who identified himself as the organization's Secretary Treasurer.  Adams said another officer is a former veteran legislative aide, and the process of registering the organization with the Secretary of State's Office is underway.

Adams rejected CalPIRG's objecting that the radio spot and webpage attempt to shutdown the initiative process by exaggerating the identity theft risk. 

"The reason these messages are getting attention is both because they are dramatic, and the people of California recognize there is a real problem," said Adams.

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