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Hyatt signature-forgery row moves Massachusetts to reform

WHO would think of waiting until after the house burns down to call the fire department? But that, in effect, is what happens all too often in government. Recent much-publicized fraud involving certain nomination papers of Republican gubernatorial candidate Gregory S. Hyatt could have been prevented. All it would have taken was some long-overdue tightening of Massachusetts election laws.

Now, in the wake of the discovery of more than 1,100 forged voter signatures on Mr. Hyatt's papers, a move is afoot to protect the nomination process.

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Secretary of State Michael J. Connolly, the state's chief election official, is pushing legislation that would empower him to set regulations concerning the handling of candidate signature sheets.

But what he wants may be just a timid step in the right direction. The reelection-bent second-term Democrat seems unwilling to ask lawmakers to cast in statutory concrete the improvements he hopes to achieve through regulations.

Under his proposal, procedures could easily be changed or relaxed, should Mr. Connolly or a successor so desire.

Instead, what is needed are more durable reforms, including uniform state-mandated procedures under which local election officials would be required to process nomination papers submitted for voter-signature certification.

All of the improvements Connolly favors clearly have merit, but in some instances they might involve a trifle more work for municipal officials. One of the proposals would require the drawing of a red line after the last name certified on a candidate's nomination paper. A second change would have the local election officials write in longhand on each nomination sheet checked the number of signatures found valid. In addition, every community would be asked to send to the state elections division, by registered mail, the total certified signatures for each candidate.

Had any of these proposals been in effect this year, it would have been impossible for the Hyatt signature forgeries to have occurred. Fortunately, the fraud was exposed by handwriting experts at signature-challenging proceedings before the ballot-law commission.

It was not the first time that those working for a candidate have taken such a shortcut to reach the ballot. While there is nothing to suggest that most office seekers and their petition-circulators are less than honest, the possibility that others have gotten away with forgery cannot be discounted. Prosecutions of such felonies, however, have been rare. The most recent was that of a 1976 would-be candidate for the US House in the state's Ninth Congressional District.

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Why it took Connolly nearly eight years in office to come up with his proposals for tightening the process may never be known. His apparently less-than-aggressive efforts in that direction before the Hyatt discovery may have given Connolly's Republican challenger, former state Rep. Deborah Cochran of Dedham, a strong campaign issue.

Had the bogus signatures on the Hyatt papers been less conspicuous (they came on nomination sheets after names certified as valid), those perpetrating the forgeries might well have succeeded. Municipal election officials are not handwriting experts. They simply check for a signer's name on the voter rolls. Unless challenged, all but the most blatant forgeries can go undetected.

Obviously, this is a major weakness in the system -- and one unaddressed by Connolly's proposals.

Lawmakers might well consider eliminating the nomination-paper requirement altogether, as was done long ago in neighboring Connecticut and New Hampshire.

In the latter, candidates qualify for the ballot either by paying a small filing fee or by collecting a modest number of voter signatures of endorsement. Most office seekers go the former route.

Connecticut election laws require that candidates seeking to run in a party primary compete at their party's convention and come away with at least 20 percent of the delegate support. Only independents -- those running without party label -- and focusing directly on the November election -- need collect voter signatures. Critics of the arrangement contend that it tends to deny ballot access to those with minimal party backing.

Those faulting the New Hampshire setup say that everyone should have the right to run for office, and nobody should be required to pay to get on the primary ballot. But surely anyone can come up with the $2 it takes to run for the Granite State's Houses, or even $100 needed to run for governor and US senator.

Fraud might be significantly reduced if the required number of signatures was cut back. To achieve this and at the same time hold down the number of candidates, a modest filing fee might be added.

Such payments could be refunded to those who in their party's primary receive at least 10 percent of the total votes cast for that office. In this way those on ego trips with little or no appeal or campaign support would be discouraged from running.

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