JEFFERSON CITY _ Signature gathering for petitions would undergo a major change if Rep. Annette Morgan, D-Kansas City, gets her way.
According to Morgan, the petition process is not serving the common citizen as it was meant to do.
Theoretically, anyone could get a measure on the ballot by collecting enough signatures. But in practice, big businesses sometimes hire people to collect signatures and pay them per signature. Morgan says the practice has led to fraud.
``We want to return the initiative petition process to a truly populist position,'' said Morgan. ``But if we have to accept that collectors can be paid, then at least we should make fraud less of a temptation.''
Sponsors say the reason such a change is needed is that per-signature payment is the leading cause for fraudulent signatures. Gatherers often make $2.50 per signature so are motivated to scribble names from a phone book.
``Every case of petition fraud I have encountered has involved per- signature payment,'' Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren told the House Elections Committee.
The bill backed by Noren would require signature gatherers to register with election authorities and to disclose whether they were being paid. The bill also would require paid petition circulators to wear badges revealing they are paid while they collect signatures.
``This way we could focus our investigative resources on petitions which are more likely to be fraudulent,'' Noren said.
Margaret Freeman of the Secretary of State's Election Services said there have been no cases of election fraud this year, but it is up to the counties to find it. "We don't care if they are paid or not," she said.
But Rep. Morgan is more concerned with the integrity of the petition process. ``It's no longer a grass roots method of getting something on the ballot. One rich guy can pay for signatures.''
Co-sponsor Steve McLuckie, D-Kansas City, agreed. ``We have gone away from the populist idea of the petition process,'' he said. ``The purpose was originally for citizens of the state to get things on the ballot but moneyed interests circumvent the legislative process.
``I don't think the gaming issue would have gotten close to the ballot without paid signature collectors,'' he said.
So far, no organized opposition has surfaced to the proposal. Nobody testified against the bill when it was heard by the Elections Committee.
Michael Lazaroff of Thompson and Mitchell law firm, which represented Missourians for riverboat gambling and helped get the riverboat initiative on the ballot, had no comment on paying petition gatherers by the hour.
One problem with the bill may be enforcement. It is not clear how the state could distinguish between hourly pay and per-signature pay.
``It may be hard to enforce but at least it gives a mechanism to investigate,'' McLuckie said.
``And the bill establishes penalties,'' Morgan said. ``Violations will be classified as a class A misdemeanor which might stop some abuse.''
A problem larger than enforcement may be constitutionality. The state of Washington recently had a federal judge strike down a similar law saying that there was no evidence that a ban on per-signature payment necessarily eliminates fraud. In fact, the case was based on testimony that paid workers had a higher rate of signature validity than volunteers did.
But both Wendy and a member of the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners, Ray James, say there is strong evidence that petition fraud is associated with per-signature payment.
``If we prove that payment per signature is related to fraud, then we could win,'' said Sandra Kauffman, R-Kansas City, a co-sponsor of the bill.
Kauffman said she would prefer a bill that would forbid collectors from being paid at all. But lawmakers in Colorado had their bill prohibiting payment of any kind struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.