- Associated Press - Monday, December 8, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The sponsors of an Oregon ballot measure that would require labels on genetically modified foods filed an emergency lawsuit Monday challenging the method used by elections officials to make sure signatures on ballot measure envelopes are not forged.

The lawsuit was filed amid indications that a statewide hand recount of ballots on the measure would not result in the measure’s passage. It seeks to force officials to count 4,600 ballots disqualified because signatures on the vote-by-mail envelopes didn’t match those on registration cards.

In the first count of ballots, Measure 92 lost by a little more than 800 votes, triggering an automatic recount. That margin has not changed much as counties have filed their recount results with the secretary of state’s office.

One of the eight plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, Christine Seals of Multnomah County, is a quadriplegic who said her signature was rejected after she signed her ballot with a signature stamp - which she had used to successfully vote in previous elections. Though voters whose signatures did not match had the opportunity rectify the problem by mail or in person, Seals said she assumed her ballot rejection was a mistake and didn’t challenge it.

Another plaintiff, George Harris of Multnomah County, said his signature was altered as a result of a stroke he suffered this year. He said he couldn’t correct his signature, because he was undergoing treatment during the allotted time.

And Ramon Ramirez, president of an Oregon-based farmworker union, said the issue also impacts Latino immigrant voters who are confused as to why their votes are being rejected.

“For many of these folks who are new citizens and first time voters, it’s very disenfranchising to be told your vote doesn’t count,” Ramirez said.

The deadline for counties to finish the recount is Friday. The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order to stop the certification of the statewide recount until the disqualified ballots are counted. It was filed against Secretary of State Kate Brown and Multnomah County Elections Director Tim Scott.

Secretary of state spokesman Tony Green said his office is reviewing the complaint. Multnomah County elections officials declined to comment.

The measure’s backers say the signature match rule disenfranchises voters. The lawsuit argues ballots should only be rejected if the secretary of state or local election officials can establish they were fraudulently signed or forged.

“These votes are simply dumped. They’re not believed to be fraudulent. It’s a standard put in place out of fear, and it’s a burden to voters,” said Paige Richardson, the measure’s campaign manager.

For a vote to be considered valid in Oregon, a voter’s signature on the ballot return envelope must match the signature in the registration card on file at the elections office.

But the GMO labeling measure’s proponents say voters are never informed that they will be required to match the signature on file. They say some voters have tried and failed to fix their mismatched signature with election officials, and others never received notification that their vote is being challenged.

This election marks the first time in Oregon that a list of problem ballots was released to the public. The GMO labeling campaign says it discovered the signature problem after making thousands of calls and knocking on thousands of doors in an effort to find more votes for the measure.

The measure’s sponsors say voter identification is already being verified in less restrictive ways in the state, before matching even occurs. Those ways include voters confirming their identities by signing the ballot return envelope and the ability to track ballots through a postal barcode.

Opponents of the GMO labeling measure decried the lawsuit.

“The proponents of the measure don’t like the outcome, so now they want the court to change Oregon’s election system just for them. We will vigorously oppose their effort to try to bend the law in their favor,” said Pat McCormick, treasurer of the NO on 92 Coalition.

If the defeat holds, Oregon will be the fourth state in the West that has failed to pass a GMO labeling measure. A similar proposal was defeated this year in Colorado, which joined Washington state and California in opposing labeling initiatives.

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