LEWISTON — Backers of an effort to get a York County casino on November’s ballot might not have left themselves much room for error. Nearly half of the 6,568 signatures collected in Lewiston and Auburn have been marked invalid.

The casino group delivered petitions containing more than 68,000 signatures to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office last Monday, just 7,000 more than the 61,123 valid signatures the group needs to get the measure on the ballot.

Successful petition drives in the past have submitted between 20,000 and 40,000 spare signatures as buffers. For example, backers of 2012’s same-sex marriage initiative submitted 96,137 signatures, 38,000 more than they needed to get on the ballot.

Backers of an effort to increase school funding submitted more than 74,000 signatures, while backers of a legalized marijuana effort submitted 76,000. Both groups are trying to get their issues on the November 2016 ballot.

Based on the initial sorting of the casino petitions by city clerks around the state last month, that 68,000 York County casino signatures might not be enough.

In Lewiston and Auburn, clerks marked 46 percent of the signatures submitted to their offices as either not belonging to registered voters or invalid for some other reason. A review of those petitions by the Sun Journal turned up one instance in which a petition circulator signed his own petitions, not once but twice, and both were among the signatures submitted to the Secretary of State’s office as valid.

Clerks in Bangor, Portland and South Portland were reporting similar results, according to the  Bangor Daily News.

But Maine’s municipal clerks are not the final authority on whether signatures qualify a question for a ballot, according to Kristen Muszynski, director of communications for the Secretary of State’s Office.

“They can make recommendations, but the final decision remains at the state level,” Muszynski said. 

State election clerks began vetting casino petitions when they were submitted last Monday, along with five other citizen initiative efforts aimed at getting on the November ballot.

“We have 30 days to go through and verify all the signatures. It’s quite an undertaking,” Muszynski said. “Everybody is involved. I’m doing some myself.”

The process is similar to what the municipal clerks went through last month. In most cases, the campaigns discard petitions with signatures the city clerks have declared invalid before they get submitted to the state.

Once they get to Augusta, the clerks check to make sure the signature collector is a registered voter, that the forms are correctly filled out, are notarized and properly signed and dated. They compare the signatures to state voter records and make sure that signers have not signed the petitions twice.

They can overrule a municipal clerk, she said.

“But usually, the campaign won’t send a petition along if the municipal clerks have already said it’s invalid,” Muszynski said.

In Lewiston-Auburn’s case, 490 of the 2,177 pages submitted to city clerks contained no valid signatures. That’s about 22 percent.

Casino backers could not be reached Friday to find out whether they had removed the pages with invalid signatures before submitting them to the state.

The York County casino backers hired Stavros Mendros’ Olympic Consulting to manage the largest portion of the signature collection effort, paying collectors between $7 and $10 per signature.

Mendros, a former lawmaker who lives in Lewiston, declined to comment Friday.

In 2011, Mendros was involved in an effort to bring a casino to Lewiston. That question failed at the polls, winning only 37 percent support across the state.

On Feb. 2, circulator George Stanley of Greene filed a statement of claim in Lewiston District Court, or small claims court, for $364 he says he is owed by Mendros.

In his statement, Stanley claims to have worked for Mendros from Jan. 6 to Jan. 24 collecting signatures for both the casino and marijuana referendums. According to Stanley, he was told he would earn between $2 and $3 per signature on the marijuana petition, and $10 per signature on the casino petition.

Stanley claimed Mendros agreed to pay him $100 to witness out-of-state circulators who were hired to collect signatures.

In January, after circulators had finished collecting signatures in Lewiston and Auburn, Stanley told the Sun Journal that even though he was paid to witness signatures, he didn’t do that.

Stanley is among a number of circulators who have told the Sun Journal that Mendros has not fully paid them for their signature gathering work.

The campaign to bring slot machines or a casino to York County is a project of Harness Racing Jobs Fairness, which has paid Mendros’ company $111,935 to gather signatures, according to state campaign finance reports. Of that, $67,000 was to pay circulators directly for their field work and the remaining money was Olympic’s administrative fee.

The petition effort is being financed entirely by Lisa Scott, a Miami developer and the sister of casino developer Shawn Scott, who bought the Bangor Raceway and then bankrolled a 2003 campaign to allow slots there. That operation, which he sold for $51 million, is now the Hollywood Casino.

According to the most recent campaign finance reports, Lisa Scott has spent $150,000 to get the casino question on the ballot, but that reported figure is expected to climb when the next round of finance reports are filed with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

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