The handwriting seemed remarkably similar on many of the petitions for Referendum 74.
They spotted a pattern that led back to one paid signature gatherer -- Julie A. Klein, 54, of Marysville.
Her petitions -- more than 50 in all -- were separated from the stacks for a closer look.
Of the 1,001 signatures she submitted, 834 did not match the handwriting on file of registered voters. Just 101 appeared to be real. Her petitions were not counted and ultimately didn't affect the referendum getting on the ballot.
The Secretary of State's Office turned the petitions over to the Washington State Patrol for a criminal investigation.
Similar discrepancies turned up with signatures Klein filed in support of another 2012 ballot measure, Initiative 1185, which required a two-thirds majority for any tax increases approved by both houses of the Legislature. Earlier this year, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the initiative violated the state constitution, which requires only a simple majority vote by both houses of the Legislature to pass laws.
That time, Klein turned in 1,241 signatures. More than 770 didn't match signatures on file, according to state records.
In late July, Snohomish County prosecutors filed felony charges against Klein, accusing her of falsely signing names onto the petitions. She pleaded not guilty in Snohomish Count Superior Court earlier this week.
Klein allegedly told a State Patrol detective that she was facing financial hardship and needed money "to keep the lights on." She allegedly admitted finding names in the phone book. She also said it seemed a victimless crime, according to court records.
Shane Hamlin, assistant director for state elections, doesn't see it that way.
"It's vital that the public has trust and confidence in the process," Hamlin said. "It breeds mistrust. It's a very serious matter."
A detective sent out samples to people whose signatures appeared on the petitions and asked if they were accurate. In the case of the gay marriage referendum, 65 of the 67 people returning the letter to the State Patrol said the signature submitted in their name was not theirs. Samples from the tax initiative resulted in a similar response.
It's not the first time state elections officials have become suspicious about the authenticity of signatures handed their way.
Eight of 19 initiatives or referenda submitted for verification between July 2008 and January 2013 contained irregularities that were turned over to the State Patrol.
Over that span, 19 people have been investigated for petition forgery or fraud. Among those, two were convicted of felonies.
Elections officials try to impress upon the companies hired to gather signatures "to take ownership of the people they have out in the field," said Dave Ammons, a spokesman for the state Secretary of State's office.
In Klein's case, a detective learned that a subcontractor didn't give the Marysville woman instructions on how to gather signatures because he assumed she had done it before. He did recall that she complained at one point about not getting many signatures and that he spent an afternoon with her to show her how to get more, according to court papers.
In the case of R-74, the subcontractor explained that he was getting paid $1.10 for each signature. He would take a 10-cent cut and his employees were earning $1 for each signature they gathered.
In the case of I-1185, he told a detective he was getting $1.40 per signature. He would take a 40-cent cut and turn over $1 per signature.
The Legislature has long feared paying someone based on the number of signatures gathered is an incentive for fraud, but a state law banning that practice was struck down in the 1990s.
Nine paid signature gatherers were under investigation for questionable signatures turned in to put Initiative 1240 to allow public charter schools. Two other initiatives, one dealing with the initiative and referendum process and the other with food labeling, were turned over to the State Patrol in February because of questionable signatures provided by paid gatherers.
Getting to the truth has been elusive.
Bob Calkins, a spokesman for the Washington State Patrol, said some investigations have run into dead-ends.
"Not only were the signatures fraudulent, but the identifying information about the signature gatherer was fraudulent and we were never able to run that down to an individual person," he said. "So those other cases we were unable to take forward for prosecution."
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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