Organizers of a stalled proposed tax measure to support child care resources in Sonoma County have sued a signature collection company they hold responsible for suspicious voter signatures that sunk the measure’s bid to qualify for the November ballot.
Our Kids Our Future organizers filed a lawsuit against Total Signers LLC Monday in Sonoma County Superior Court.
The complaint accuses the California and Florida-based company of breach of contract and seeks $18,232 in damages plus interest — equivalent to the shortfall of nearly 2,279 valid signatures Total Signers needed to fulfill its obligations.
In June, the Sonoma County election officials identified 2,598 signatures turned in by Our Kids Our Future that did not match the voters’ signatures on file and so could not be counted.
“It appears likely they’re fraudulent,” Registrar of Voters Deva Proto said at the time.
The discovery came too late to mount a renewed signature gathering effort and led organizers to suspend the campaign.
“I really feel like we have no choice but to do it,” Ananda Sweet, Our Kids Our Future’s board president, said of the decision to file the suit.
Sweet and Dennis Rosatti, a campaign consultant, say an internal audit showed the bulk of problem signatures were collected by Total Signer’s contractors.
Mychael Bluntson, Total Signer’s operating manager and owner, said the business had reviewed the signatures to pull out any that appeared problematic but did not have the technology to verify signatures like the Registrar of Voters.
“I know that when I submitted the signatures, they looked apparently good,” Bluntson said. “It’s just impossible to know.”
Our Kids Our Future championed the proposed quarter-cent sales tax to support pay for child care employees, expansion of the local child care network, pediatric screening and treatment and other early childhood services.
The campaign projected the measure would bring in $22 million annually if passed.
Our Kids Our Future contracted Total Signers to collect 8,000 signatures — nearly 40% of the total needed to qualify for the Nov. 8 election. Under the agreement, Total Signers committed to a 70% threshold for valid signatures and a refund of $8 per signature that did not meet the threshold.
The campaign paid Total Signers $67,000 for the work, campaign finance records show.
It is not unusual for campaigns to have 1% to 2% of signatures that are invalid, but the number of problematic signatures turned in by Our Kids Our Future was 9.6%, Proto said.
“We know that number is statistically significant,” she said.
The election office verifies signatures by comparing the signature on a petition to the signature on file through voter registration and recent ballots, Proto said.
The campaign’s internal audit examined each signature packet. Signature gatherers must sign the back of every packet turned in and include their address.
Rosatti said Total Signers emerged as the common denominator for the faulty signatures. The campaign also had hired Sonoma County Conservation Action, a local environmental group; a few independent contractors and used volunteers to collect signatures.
“It wasn’t hard to figure out who the Total Signers people were,” Rosatti said, noting the effort required many hours of sorting through all the paperwork.
Bluntson said the campaign should be suing the individual signature collectors that Total Signers contracted, not the company itself.
“We can’t be held accountable for not knowing signatures are real or fake,” Bluntson said.
He added that Total Signers had hired those signature collectors before and not had a problem with them.
The county’s verification process for the election process did not look at who was responsible for hiring the gatherers who turned in problematic signatures.
Bluntson started Total Signers in 2020. The company, registered to addresses in Fresno and North Miami, Florida, has worked on campaigns in California, Florida and Michigan, Bluntson said.
“I have multiple references that can vouch for my credibility,” Bluntson said. “I think this one was just an unfortunate anomaly.”
Rosatti said the campaign found Total Signers through a “comprehensive search of signature gathering firms in the state” and added the company came with professional references that checked out.
Sweet and Rosatti said Total Signers has yet to address their concerns about the signatures. Rosatti said the campaign waited until the Registrar of Voters wrapped up its verification process before filing the lawsuit.
“We’ve given them more than a month since then to reply and they’re not,” Rosatti said, noting that the voter registrar completed its signature check at the end of August.
Bluntson said his communication has been spotty because he is seeking legal advice.
“This is my first situation ever dealing with this,” Bluntson said.
Proto said her office does not investigate such cases but the high number of bad signatures led her to notify the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office and California Secretary of State’s Office.
“At this time we are, in fact, looking into this at a preliminary level to determine what, if any, actions our office will take going forward,” Assistant Sonoma County District Attorney Brian Staebell said in an email.
The Secretary of State’s Office did not respond to request for comment.
Before the invalid signatures derailed the campaign in July, Our Kids Our Future had shown signs of building momentum, bringing in endorsements from numerous county leaders and raising $348,886 in contributions between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2022, according to the latest campaign finance filings.
Supporters of the measure argued it was more needed than ever given the pandemic’s impact on child care operators nationwide and locally.
Sonoma County has 531 child care facilities, down 15% from before the pandemic. It has lost 44% of available child care slots since March 2020, according to the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County (4Cs), a nonprofit that offers early childhood services for families and tracks local industry data.
“There was, I think, some real community building around the idea that all kids deserve access to an equal start in life,” Sweet said.
Organizers have decided to pursue the measure for the 2024 general election. Sweet is optimistic the campaign will find support similar to what it garnered this cycle.
“It’s a need that’s going to continue to exist,” Sweet said.
You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or [email protected] On Twitter @MurphReports.