Most Matos campaign signatures validated after review, but R.I. election board to continue investigating

THE R.I. BOARD OF ELECTIONS voted Tuesday to subpoena Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos' signature staffers to testify after the Sept. 5 primary election. / SCREENSHOT VIA YOUTUBE.COM
THE R.I. BOARD OF ELECTIONS voted Tuesday to subpoena Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos' signature staffers to testify after the Sept. 5 primary election. / SCREENSHOT VIA YOUTUBE.COM

CRANSTON – While Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos’ congressional campaign has more than enough valid signatures to be eligible for the ballot after a review by the R.I. Board of Elections, the board still has questions about the signatures themselves and the collection process, and wants to ask the signature collectors themselves.

The board on Tuesday voted 4-2 to continue its investigation sometime after the Sept. 5 primary election but no later than seven days after the general election. The board’s first meeting after the primary is scheduled for Sept. 12. Subpoenas will be issued out soon to Matos’ signature collectors and be brought before the board for questioning under oath.

Board members Randall Jackvony, Louis DeSimone Jr., Marcela Betancur and Jennifer Johnson voted favorably to subpoena Matos’ staffers. Board Vice Chairman David Sholes and member Michael Connors dissented. Chairwoman Diane Mederos was not present for Tuesday’s meeting.

This was a similar motion Jackvony made at the board’s Aug. 8 meeting when it voted to review all all of the signatures on the nomination papers filed by the Matos campaign. Initially on Tuesday, DeSimone repeated Jackvony’s motion to subpoena the campaign staffers before the primary, but the board voted it down 4-2.

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The board’s vote is the latest development in the controversy surrounding the validity of the signatures submitted by Matos’ campaign in her push for Congress. R.I. Attorney General Peter F, Neronha’s office is conducting a separate statewide investigation into the matter.

During Tuesday’s meeting, RIBOE Executive Director Robert Rapoza said that a formal three-day review determined that 726 signatures submitted by Matos’ campaign were validated – a difference of just four signatures compared to what the local boards of canvassers verified – while 559 of them were disqualified. Of that amount, 126 were considered “signature mismanagement.”

Rapoza informed the board that 13 state elections staff and local canvassers who reviewed 112 nomination forms from 16 cities and towns “detected no obvious patterns of fraud.” Deputy Director of Elections Miguel Nunez did tell the board Tuesday that instances where signatures of people who are deceased were identified and listed as “not eligible” during the staff review.

However, the 726 verified signatures are well ahead of the 500 verified signatures needed by Matos to be on the ballot. In a statement, Matos says the review affirmed what her campaign and the R.I. Secretary of State’s office previously found regarding ballot eligibility “despite being the victim of a vendor who lied to my campaign.”

“I believe in our democratic process and I am glad that we can all be confident that it worked,” Matos said. “It is unfortunate that the guys who are running against me have used this as an opportunity to attempt to smear my reputation and call into question our democratic process.”

Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion told Providence Business News Tuesday that it is “not unusual” for a candidate to have a large percentage of signatures disqualified. He said signatures are collected by volunteers who are not necessarily asking the signers for IDs to prove residency or comparing voters’ information to the state’s registration file.

The public does not typically pay attention to the signature disqualification process because problems with the signatures are not “nefarious by nature,” rather just mistakes, Marion said. In this case, though, Marion says there is “quite a bit of public evidence” that some signatures were forged, plus the criminal investigation.

“It revealed some of the problems in the system at the moment,” Marion said.

Some board members, though, felt more questions still need to be asked of Matos’ campaign, hence Jackvony’s and DeSimone’s revisited push to subpoena the signature gatherers, with Jackvony citing “the seriousness of the process” of gathering signatures.

“We are charged with the duty of maintaining the integrity of the electoral process,” Jackvony said. “When people sign and don’t take it seriously, that troubles me. Clearly, something has gone on that goes beyond the abnormal.”

Jackvony also said he doesn’t want to make the process so onerous to where collecting signatures would become impossible.

Sholes reiterated his concern from last week that the gatherers, if subpoenaed, could take the Fifth Amendment right and not answer questions because of the ongoing investigation by the attorney general’s office. Plus, Sholes felt that further inquiries from the board may impact Neronah’s investigation, as well as allow the voters to have their say at the ballot boxes.

Additionally, early voting in Rhode Island commences Wednesday, so board members were informed that the window to have signature gatherers testify before the primary is very small, the board was informed. Marion said the board, per the R.I. General Assembly, only has two days to investigate discrepancies. The board had previously filed legislation with the state asking for that investigation window to be widened to seven days.

RIBOE staff attorney Raymond A. Marcaccio did tell the board that while fraud investigations are mainly handled by law enforcement, the board has “no restrictions” on its authority to investigate any discrepancies. Marcaccio also said people could plead the fifth because of possible criminal ramifications, but “if you get something from [the gatherers], how many of those signatures are invalid? That would something you also have to consider [in your decision].”

Michael Goldberg, Mato’s attorney, said the board continues to meet regularly about the signature controversy, it “runs the risk of affecting the election itself.”

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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