Petitions at the epicenter of the Sacramento arena debate

A quiet office in south Sacramento has become the focal point this week of the fight over whether the public should vote on the city’s deal to jointly build a $448 million arena downtown with the Sacramento Kings.

At the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters offices, housed in a former retail store off Florin Road, a dozen election workers sit at computers, engaged in the tedious process of checking, one by one, the validity of 35,000 petition signatures the city delivered a few weeks ago from people requesting a vote.

On a chalkboard, someone has erased the last two words of “Happy New Year!” and replaced them to say “Happy Petitions!”

The group has until Jan. 23 to determine if enough of the signatures are valid, about 22,000, to qualify the question for the June ballot.

County Registrar of Voters Jill LaVine has taken the unusual step of announcing each day’s count in a mass emailing. As of Wednesday afternoon, the officials had sorted through the first 8,518 signatures and declared 5,767 of them valid, a 68 percent validity rate. The group will have to better 62 percent to qualify. The measure, if passed, would require voter approval of subsidies for professional sports stadiums.

The county election staff is used to tallying the winners and losers in political fights. This task, however, is intense and time-consuming and is being done under a bright spotlight, officials said.

“It’s a very interesting process, with all the political ramifications and the scrutiny,” LaVine said as she surveyed her hunkered-down staff this week. “The whole office is working on this. It’s a big job.”

Earlier this week, attorneys for a pro-arena group called for some of the petitions to be rejected, pointing out that there are differing versions with different wording. LaVine said her office will continue to count all petitions until notified otherwise by Sacramento city officials, who have contracted with the county to do the count. City Attorney James Sanchez said the concerns are “being evaluated and addressed,” but declined to comment further.

Typically during petition drives, LaVine’s office does random checks of only about 3 percent of the total signatures to determine whether enough of them are valid to prompt an election. In this case, however, the Sacramento City Clerk’s Office has requested that the county check every single signature.

It’s a double count, in effect. In addition to the petition signatures, LaVine’s staff is sorting through a separate set of signatures –submitted by a pro-arena group – of people who supposedly signed the anti-arena deal petitions, then changed their minds and want their names withdrawn. That drive began after it was revealed that many of the petition workers in Sacramento were being paid by money from Chris Hansen, the man who tried to buy the Kings and move them to Seattle.

Voter registration officials say they received about 15,000 withdrawal requests. They have determined that 9,800 of them are registered county voters.

Each day, election office staffers sit with petitions in front of them, typing each name on the petition into their voter-registration database to see if there is a matching name and address. If there is a match, the signature is counted. If not, it is marked invalid. In some cases, the computer will signal that this person has requested his or her name be withdrawn. In that case, the worker will walk the name over to a row of tables to double-check the name with workers who have sorted the withdrawal requests.

“Having this many withdrawals is groundbreaking,” LaVine said. She said she already is talking with state officials about the possibility of beefing up state election law to offer more specifics in the future on how to handle withdrawal campaigns.

At each day’s end, the petitions are placed in plastic bins, and rolled on carts into a back room, secured by a pass code and monitored by two cameras.

Working an extra hour each day, officials say they hope to finish the task with time to spare before their Jan. 23 deadline.

But they are not rushing, elections supervisor Heather Ditty said. “We’re working cautiously.”

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