The Curious Case of the Right Wing Forgers
The Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation into forged signatures and the alteration of more than 1,000 addresses on referendum petitions circulated by a group affiliated with Citizens for Community Values, in the group’s efforts to overturn a Cincinnati law that gives anti-discrimination protection to gays and lesbians.
Because Equal Rights Not Special Rights (ERNSR) withdrew its referendum effort, however, the county’s Board of Elections today canceled a hearing on the matter after meeting for about 30 minutes in closed-door executive session. ERNSR filed the withdrawal with Cincinnati officials, and the county board is waiting for the paperwork to be transferred to its office.
“When we receive those documents, there will be no need for further action by the board because those petitions will be withdrawn,” said Tim Burke, the Board of Elections chair, after the meeting.
Asked whether the Board of Elections or the prosecutor’s investigation will try to determine who specifically changed the addresses on the petitions, Burke replied, “By instruction of counsel, I don’t have any comment on that.”
It’s unclear how the large number of crossed out signatures on the petitions were approved by the Board of Elections earlier this year without more scrutiny.
ERNSR is the committee formed by Sharonville-based Citizens for Community Values to fight the Cincinnati anti-discrimination law. It had until mid-April to collect the signatures of 7,654 registered Cincinnati voters to force a referendum on the November ballot.
The group collected more than 14,000 signatures, but about half were immediately dismissed by the board as ineligible. That left ERNSR with 7,656 signatures, just two more than legally required.
ERNSR had sought a referendum to overturn a Cincinnati law that provides protection for gay, bisexual and transgendered people in housing and employment matters. More than 1,300 of the 7,656 signatures collected by the group were facing a legal challenge by the law’s backers, Citizens to Restore Fairness. ERNSR leaders admitted 18 of the signatures were forgeries, which they blamed on “one of the temporary day laborers hired to help circulate the petition.”
“The people of Cincinnati deserved to vote on this issue,” said Phil Burress, ERNSR’s chair. “Due to the lack of integrity of one paid circulator, they will be prevented from doing so.”
Citizens to Restore Fairness countered that the manner in which addresses were changed proves a systemic effort by ERNSR, not the actions of a lone circulator. Addresses were marked out and replaced with new ones on 1,016 of the signatures collected by ERNSR. The addresses that were changed were for signers who lived outside Cincinnati city limits — such as Cleves and Mariemont — and they were replaced by addresses for people who live within the city and have the same or similar names.
That type of effort could only come from someone comparing the names with the rolls of registered voters, according to Gary Wright, a Citizens to Restore Fairness leader.
“The issue here goes deeper than a few people screwing up on a couple of petitions,” he said.
In accordance with state law, ERNSR filed documents stating it paid $40,000 for the petition circulation effort. In the document’s slot that asks for the names and addresses of the people paid, ERNSR wrote, “Under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, this information is not required to be reported.” The group cited a 1999 case as precedent.
Jennifer Branch, lawyer for Citizens to Restore Fairness, said, “I disagree legally with that.”
Branch and others plan to ask prosecutors to inquire who received the payments.
— Kevin Osborne