Overruling of Secretary of State will encourage more fraud in citizen’s initiative process

Good Saturday to you, after a bit of a blogging sabbatical I am back. In case you missed the news (which would be hard because Maine media outlets have been posting articles to social media practically every hour), Justice Murphy overruled the Secretary of State’s invalidation of the marijuana referendum petition.  The initiative is now remanded back to the Secretary of State’s office to review the individual signatures on the petitions that were invalidated. However, it still remains to be seen if Secretary Dunlap’s office will appeal Justice Murphy’s ruling. In my opinion, which is based on my experience as a currently commissioned Maine Notary Public, I believe Secretary Dunlap absolutely should challenge the ruling.

One thing that has become abundantly clear as I’ve followed this story and discussed it with others, is that many people simply don’t understand what a Notary Public does, nor the regulations and guidelines that instruct how they are supposed to conduct their duties.  When you a Notary Public is notarizing a document, it isn’t simply a matter of them putting their signature on the document in question.  The whole point of a Notary Public is to witness an oath or signature.  For example, if you need to have paperwork associated with a mortgage or other banking process notarized, the Public Notary is witnessing that it is indeed you putting your signature on that paperwork, and not someone else.  This is why often when you have paperwork notarized you also have to provide photo identification to the Notary Public.

In the case of these petitions, the role of the Notary Public is witness the oath of the circulators who are turning in petitions with signatures.  The circulator is giving an oath that they themselves personally witnessed every person on that petition provide their signature. It is a check built into the citizen’s initiative process to prevent signature fraud.  What can’t happen, is to simply turn in and pile up completed petitions, and then sign or notarize them after the fact. This bypasses the circulator oath, and bypasses the check against signature fraud, and calls into question the authenticity of signatures.  However, observations from the Secretary of State’s office indicates that this is allegedly what happened with petitions that were notarized by Stavros Mendros.  For example, with petitions Mendros and others notarized for the casino campaign, Secretary Dunlap noted:

“It was clear just by looking at the documents that somebody had a stack of petitions and somebody was just notarizing them,” Dunlap said March 2.

In fact, in an article in last weekend’s article in the Maine Sunday Telegram, Mendros himself, in describing the issues with his signature, offers an incriminating statement that suggests that’s exactly what he did:

“Sometimes it got sloppy because I was up at 4 a.m. signing 1,000 documents at the same time,”

Again, let’s back up and remember how this process is supposed to work.  The circulator takes a completed petition to the Public Notary, provides their oath, and then the Public Notary signs the document. The obvious question then becomes, did Stavros Mendros actually have the circulators for the 1000 documents in his home or office at 4 am?  That doesn’t pass the straight-face test. So according to Mendros’ own words, Secretary Dunlap was absolutely in the right to invalidate the petitions.

The chilling effect of Justice Murphy’s ruling, is that it will in effect encourage more of this behavior when it comes to petitions. The ruling basically nullifies the role, and the importance of the Notary Public in the citizen’s initiative process, and it is a vital role which I can’t describe any better than Secretary Dunlap:

“The entire process hinges on the integrity of the oath (to the notary) that the circulator actually witnessed the signatures.”

An honest examination of the evidence makes it clear that at the very least, there was some significant corner cutting involved with both the casino and marijuana campaigns.  The evidence provided by Secretary Dunlap’s office and Mendros’ own words raise the spectre that corners were cut in the circulator oath and notarization process.  I absolutely agree, we need to make sure that Maine voters are not disenfranchised in the citizen initiative process.  But if we validate corner cutting in the process, we invite more fraud and corruption, and that disenfranchises all Maine voters.

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

About Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C is a Certified Prevention Specialist and is the Director of Operations at AdCare Educational Institute of Maine, Inc. He currently serves on the Maine Substance Abuse Services Commission as well as the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention National Advisory Council. Scott volunteers as the Chair of the marijuana policy education and advocacy group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine and is the current Board President of the Maine Council on Problem Gambling. Scott also serves as a Co-chair of the Prevention & Harm Reduction task force of the Maine Opiate Collaborative, the effort convened by U.S. Attorney Thomas E Delahanty, II to address Maine's growing opiate and addiction crisis. Scott is the recipient of the 2015 Maine Public Health Association's Ruth S. Shaper Memorial Award and 2015 Healthy Androscoggin Will Bartlett Award and is also the 2013 recipient of the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse Prevention Award.