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What Signature-Gatherers Can — and Can't — Tell Potential Voters

The devil is in the details of the California Election Code.

Politicians have been known to lie, mislead, hoodwink, deceive and otherwise give the thesaurus a workout when it comes to antonyms for “tell the truth.” Opponents may get outraged and the media might jump into fact-check mode, but it’s unusual for a truth-averse politician to actually get in trouble with the law.

Signature-gatherers, like those who filled petitions to force a referendum on the Barrio Logan community blueprint, must follow a stricter standard in California. The law says they can’t “intentionally” misrepresent or make any “false statement concerning the contents, purport or effect of the petition” to just about anyone who might conceivably sign the thing.

The law could be relevant to the interests of those trying to fight off the Barrio Logan referendum drive. They’ve complained about inaccuracies, and our own reporting discovered that some signature-gatherers and at least one flier have spread misinformation. But that doesn’t mean legal action is likely.

The devil, as always, is in the details — especially that word “intentionally” in the snippet of the California Election Code. That seems to mean a petition-gatherer can accidentally say something wrong.

“You have to show that they knew what the thing was and they said something different,” said Joe Mathews, a Los Angeles-based author of a book about California politics and co-president of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, which studies initiatives and referendums around the world.

Intent, he said, is “famously hard to prove.” But would a signature-gatherer actually not understand a measure that he or she is pushing? Absolutely, Mathews said. “I found that very few circulators read the measures they’re circulating. To be fair, that’s just as people don’t read the measures they sign or vote on, and legislators don’t read the laws they write.”

What if someone who signs a petition believes that he or she was misled by a signature -gatherer? Mathews isn’t sympathetic. “People can read those things before they sign them. If you sign something where you’re taking the word of the person who’s shouting a sentence or two, it’s on you.”

But petition signers who believe they were misled or otherwise made a mistake by signing can do something about it. Under San Diego’s Municipal Code, they can mail a request to the city clerk’s office and ask that their signature be removed. The deadline to remove a name from the Barrio Logan petition — the same day that petition signatures are due — is Nov. 1.

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