SALEM – Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign got derailed Wednesday in Oregon when Secretary of State Bill Bradbury ruled that his supporters didn’t properly number some of their signature sheets.
Nader backers responded with sharp criticism for Bradbury and vowed to fight the ruling with a court challenge.
Supporters had appeared to turn in more than enough voter signatures to nominate the longtime consumer advocate as an independent presidential candidate in Oregon, but Bradbury concluded that state election law and administrative rules forced him to throw out 3,072 signatures.
He discounted the majority of the signatures because of a requirement that each signature sheet turned in to a county elections office be sequentially numbered.
After consulting with his agency’s legal staff, Bradbury said it was clear that he had to throw out all the signatures on sheets that weren’t properly numbered or filled out by circulators.
“Oregon election law is incredibly clear on the numbering issue, and I was really left with no choice but to uphold the law in Oregon,” said Bradbury, a Democrat.
Nader’s effort to get on the ballots of several states has proven to be politically contentious, particularly in showdown states such as Oregon, where both Republican George Bush and Democrat John Kerry have a shot at winning. Nader, who drew 5 percent of the vote in Oregon four years ago, is seen as a potential spoiler for Kerry.
Nader’s chief advocate in Oregon, Portland lawyer Greg Kafoury, accused Bradbury of acting out of partisan loyalty to his party’s presidential nominee.
“It was politically motivated to the point of being corrupt. Bradbury should be ashamed of himself,” Kafoury said.
The Nader campaign will file a lawsuit no later than Friday, Kafoury said, challenging what he characterized as the misapplication of a “trivial administrative rule” to deny thousands of Oregonians their constitutionally guaranteed rights as registered voters.
“I don’t think the courts will tolerate that. First Amendment trumps administrative rules,” he said.
Kafoury said his campaign had asked the secretary of state’s office about the page-numbering requirement before submitting petitions.
The question arose because Nader backers were unsure how they should deal with the rule, given that the secretary of state’s office was ordering county elections workers to pull out sheets with signatures that appeared to be invalid. He cited a Nader campaign coordinator’s affidavit saying the decision to submit unnumbered signature sheets was based on advice given by a worker in the secretary of state’s Elections Division.
For Nader’s name to be added to all of Oregon’s ballots, Bradbury’s decision would have to be reversed by Sept. 8, the date when counties must finalize ballots so they can start mailing them to absentee voters.
The Service Employees International Union raised the page-numbering issue early in the signature verification process. The union took the lead in contesting the validity of signatures gathered by the pro-Nader forces. The union’s lawyer, Margaret Olney, praised the decision by Bradbury and his staff.
“It’s an absolutely necessary decision in order to ensure the integrity of the election and signature-gathering process,” Olney said. “This is a victory for clean elections.”
Russ Walker, a Bush supporter whose organization had members offer to gather signatures to put Nader’s name on the ballot, said he was disappointed, but Bradbury had no choice other than to follow the letter of the law.
He faulted the Nader campaign for not anticipating that pro-Kerry forces would invoke any legal technicality available to keep the consumer advocate’s name off the ballot.
“From my perspective, they should have been able to plan ahead for this,” said Walker, the Oregon director of the national conservative group FreedomWorks. “They knew the unions were going to be critical of everything they did.”
To make the ballot in Oregon, Nader needed 15,306 valid signatures. According to the state Elections Division, the campaign last Tuesday submitted 18,186.
But Bradbury ruled that only 15,088 of the signatures were valid. He discounted 2,354 signatures because they were on pages that weren’t properly numbered, 718 signatures on petition sheets that circulators failed to properly fill out with dates and their own signatures, and 10 duplicate signatures.
The numbering issue arose with petitions submitted to eight counties, including Multnomah, which produced the biggest batch of signatures for Nader. Lane County’s signature sheets all were properly numbered, Elections Division Director John Lindback said.
PETITION SHEET RULES
Secretary of State Bill Bradbury based his decision on Chapter 249 of the Oregon Revised Statutes and the administrative rules in the 2004 Candidates Manual. Here are excerpts:
• The secretary of state shall, by rule, “prescribe a system for numbering all signature sheets of nominating or recall petitions.”
• Before submitting signature sheets to county elections officials, the chief sponsor must “sequentially number each signature sheet in the space provided.”
• “No signature in violation of the provisions of chapter shall be counted.”