Eaves Questions 9,000 Norwood Signatures for Ballot Access

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(APN) ATLANTA — Independent candidate Mary Norwood sought Injunctive Relief from Fulton County Superior Court in a lawsuit filed Tuesday, June 22, 2010, after Fulton County Chairman John Eaves’s reelection campaign questioned the petition forms Norwood has used to gain some 9,000 signatures in her effort to be listed on the General Election ballot as an Independent.

Judge Jerry Baxter has been assigned to the case, number 2010-CV187251, and an emergency hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday morning, June 30, at 9:30am.

At issue is the fact that the Norwood campaign at some point started using petition forms with the word “Fulton” pre-printed in the County column on the form.

The Norwood campaign pre-printed the word Fulton to address several problems they encountered when circulating the first set of petitions they used which were not pre-printed.

First of all, some voters were putting curly quotation marks or ditto marks (“) under the word County because the first line had been pre-printed with a sample signature and the word Fulton.

Aaron Uchitel, a customer service representative at Urban Body Fitness in Midtown Atlanta told Atlanta Progressive News that he put ditto marks on his petition because he knew only Fulton County voters could sign the petition and thus to write the word Fulton would be redundant since it is already a Fulton County petition.

In reality, the form is produced by the Secretary of State’s office, but is distributed also by County offices, and can be used for ballot access efforts for positions that are statewide, Congressional district-wide, State House or Senate district-wide, or limited to a single county. However, Norwood’s petition was limited to Fulton County voters.

Norwood told Atlanta Progressive News that some voters had put the word “Yes” under County because they believed, again, they were being asked if they lived in Fulton County.

In addition, the Norwood campaign had found that some people were filling out the petition who lived in other counties, not understanding it was a Fulton petition. Thus, their signatures were being crossed out by the campaign.

In order to prevent invalid signatures, ditto marks, or the word “yes”, Norwood’s lead volunteer, Lori Lobel, sent an email to April Pye, Administrative Chief for Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections, on May 18, 2010, seeking permission to pre-print the forms, according to a copy of the email obtained by APN.

“We have tried to make it easier for everyone by adding the county “FULTON” on the petition since everyone has to be in Fulton county. This saves a step for people signing the petition. Will this disqualify the petition,” Lobel asked.

“Lori, this would not invalidate the petition,” Pye replied.

However, Jeremy Berry of the McKenna Long & Aldridge lawfirm sent a letter on behalf of the Eaves campaign to Barry Garner, Director of Fulton County Department of Registration and Elections, on June 11, challenging Pye’s advice to Lobel.

“This Firm represents the Committee to Elect John Eaves, Inc. We are writing to correct what we believe is erroneous advice that the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections (“Elections Board”) provided to a representative of Mary Norwood Campaign 2010 (“Norwood Campaign”),” Berry wrote.

“The information that Ms. Pye provided to the Norwood Campaign is incorrect and contrary to the law. In no uncertain terms, the State of Georgia Elections Code requires that each elector must complete all her own information on the nomination petition,” Berry wrote.

“The Elections Code requires that: Each person signing a nomination petition shall declare therein that he or she is a duly qualified and registered elector of the state, county, or municipality entitled to vote in the next election… and shall add his or her signature, his or her residence address, giving municipality, if any, and county, with street and number, if any, and be urged to add the person’s date of birth which shall be used for verification purposes. OCGA 21-2-170(c),” Berry wrote.

Berry added that the Elections Division had previously issued a legal opinion that “all written information on the petition about a voter must come from the voter,” concluding, “Therefore we believe it is incumbent upon us to bring this situation to your attention,” Berry wrote.

“Thank you for bringing this situation to my attention,” Garner wrote in his response to Berry. “I will forward your letter to the Norwood Campaign as part of our response to that campaign’s Open Records Act request, and advise them to seek legal advice as to whether or not it is appropriate for the petition to have the word ‘Fulton’ typed in the space provided for the county.”

“In addition, I have informed all staff that our general practice is to refer campaigns and/or citizens to the appropriate statute or regulation that provides guidance on the issue in question, and refrain from providing legal advice,” Garner wrote.

At stake are the validity of some estimated 9,000 signatures which could help Norwood become the first independent candidate in Georgia to gain ballot access in a non-statewide race and a non-special election since the 1970’s.

“Being in a state with the most restrictive ballot access in the entire country has been Herculean, a tremendous challenge. We’ve had hundreds of volunteers collecting five to fifteen signatures,” Norwood told Atlanta Progressive News.

“Our campaign, realizing that we are at this point one month away from the absolute deadline, July 13, what is really important is the volunteer efforts continue, and everyone comes and signs at the shopping center [campaign office] or one of the many locations,” Norwood said.

Norwood has hired Free and Equal, a petition signature-gathering firm, which collected some 90,000 signatures to get Ralph Nader in the ballot in Texas in 2008. Free and Equal charges per signature.

However, Norwood stressed that both the paid effort and the volunteer efforts will be necessary to collect the approximately 22,700 signatures needed to qualify to get on the ballot as an independent, or five percent of the registered voters in Fulton County. “We absolutely need both in order to be successful,” Norwood said.

“I’m not ascribing motives to the Committee to Elect John Eaves. We have thousands of citizens who have circulated and/or signed, and their signatures should count,” Norwood said.

“It’s very important we know in the next few days whether these forms used in good faith will be valid,” Norwood said.

“There are thousands of people who’ve signed and believed they’re part of a movement to get Mary Norwood on the ballot. For them, we want to get clarification from the judge,” Norwood said.

Richard Winger, a national expert of ballot access issues and publisher of Ballot Access News, said the intent of the voter should be more important than procedural technicalities.

“What a contrast Utah is compared to Georgia. Today, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously ruled electronic signatures on an independent candidate are valid. They just think about the intent of the signer, not the artificial things of what the petition looked like,” Winger said.

“What is the meaning of a petition signature? They want Mary Norwood on the ballot. Who cares if they wrote Fulton? What is the purpose of the petition, to convey the voter’s will,” Winger said.

“Why do they get lost in this utterly meaningless question of whether it was preprinted or written in? Some states don’t even require the circulator to sign off on the bottom, they don’t care who circulated it. In Georgia, they’ve got to be notarized? Why? They’re going to be checked anyway. Every voter’s signature is on file in the election office. All this stuff is designed to discourage petitioning,” Winger said.

Winger said that there have been at least three cases in other states where election officials had provided incorrect advice that a campaign had then relied upon, and that the signatures were not thrown out because of the legal principle of “estoppel.” One such case was when Eugene McCarthy had tried to get on the ballot in Louisiana and was given the incorrect deadline by the state.

However, Norwood’s attorney, Matthew Maguire, of Balch & Bingham LLP, told APN that Georgia does not have an estoppel law. Still, he is arguing that the substance and content of the signature is more important than technicalities.

Maguire admitted to APN that the literal language of the OCGA requires voters to complete all information on the petition themselves. “That’s literally what the law states,” he said.

“The argument I would make is there was substantive compliance with the law. Each person who signs has to declare themselves a Fulton County voter. Once they’ve done that, if they write Fulton County is redundant,” he said.

“The purpose is to make sure they’re in Fulton County. By preprinting, you’re going an extra step to make sure Fulton County people sign,” Maguire said.

“I think they’re trying to discount or disqualify signatures already obtained so she can’t make it onto the ballot. I think it’s sort of a game of gotcha. They’ve found a technicality to disenfranchise thousands of voters. Nobody thinks preprinting Fulton County causes an unfair election or some compromise of the process.”

Eaves did not return a voicemail left Tuesday seeking comment.

(END/2010)

About the author:

Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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