Bad Sign

Last week, the Arizona Reform Party suffered a setback in its quest to qualify for November's ballot when Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell refused to certify thousands of signatures turned in by the party.

Purcell says the Reform Party's petitions -- which included scores of non-registered voters, duplicates and possible forgeries -- are the worst quality she's seen in more than 10 years as a county recorder.

"We call them phone-book signatures," she says, because some look as though they've been copied straight from a phone book, instead of gathered individually from registered Arizona voters.

The Reform Party still has until June 29 to turn in a total of 13,569 valid signatures; Purcell rejected 5,841 of the 9,014 turned in last week.

And the Reform Party rejections could have broader implications, Purcell says, because the signatures were gathered by Lee Petition Management, which counts more than half a dozen current major initiative drives in the state as clients. More than likely, the same circulators who gathered the bad Reform Party signatures were simultaneously carrying petitions for measures that would reform drug policies, deregulate the telephone industry, phase out the state income tax and require that English be taught in the classroom. Earlier this month, the group "Healthy Children, Healthy Families" turned in 150,000 signatures -- almost all collected by Lee Petition Management. They have not yet been validated.

"I don't see how those signatures are going to get better" than the Reform Party signatures, Purcell says.

Derrick Lee, the proprietor of Lee Petition Management and the subject of a recent Phoenix New Times profile ("Autograph Hound," April 13), says he's not at all concerned.

"We'll just go down and validate them ourselves and see what's going on," he says. "Every single one of them."

(The law requires that every signature turned in for party qualification be validated by county officials. A random sample of 5 percent is validated for initiatives; candidate signatures are validated only if challenged.)

"I'm in Texas and I won't be home until next week to look at them," says Lee, who was reached on his cell phone Friday. "But I mean, I've already been in touch with the Reform Party about it and I just -- I don't know -- I just really have a hard time buying into that . . . . I don't know what to say, other than that I've never had problems like this before."

Purcell and Karen Osborne, county elections director, acknowledge Lee has never had such a poor turn-in. The county officials say they've alerted an investigator from the state Attorney General's Office.

Lee says his staff is supposed to spot-check signatures to screen for possible forgeries and other problems. But among the piles of petitions turned in for the Reform Party are sheets with identical handwriting on each line -- all appearing to be copied by the same person.

Circulators are required to truthfully state their name and address and attest that they are residents with the intention to remain in Arizona, but one petition circulator listed his address as 224 E. Madison Street -- smack in the middle of America West Arena. Osborne says that even if the circulator had accidentally put East instead of West Madison in his address, it still wouldn't have been right; 224 W. Madison is down the hall from the recorder's office.

Another petition turned in for the Reform Party effort looks like a reunion party for Arizona legislators from the 1980s: Jan Brewer, Doug Todd (written "Brewer Jan" and "Todd Doug"), Stan Furman, Greg Patterson, Candice Nagel. Also: Chuck Blanchard, who isn't living in Arizona -- he's working for the national drug czar in Washington, D.C. -- and Nancy Wessel, who Purcell says had a stroke years ago and would not be capable of penning her name so clearly, if at all.

John Gilbert, Maricopa County chair of the Arizona Reform Party, says party members have felt in the past that they were the targets of unfair scrutiny of signatures, but says, "I don't want to cast stones without having a dead target to hit . . . . If it turns out that his [Lee's] process missed these things, certainly we don't want to appear to be conspiratorial Chicken Littles."

Contact Amy Silverman at 602-229-8443 or at her online address: [email protected]