Who’s to blame for the CD1 signature scandal: The candidate or the process?

Part-time field worker at center of investigation no longer with Matos campaign, AG’s office now involved

By: - July 20, 2023 5:38 pm

The Rhode Island Board of Elections offers training for local canvassing workers every election cycle. Canvassing officials in two municipalities flagged potentially fraudulent forms signed by Holly McLaren. Why didn’t officials in more than a dozen others notice anything suspicious? (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

The blame game has kicked into high gear as allegations of signature fraud envelop Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos’ campaign for the 1st Congressional District seat. 

Who should be held responsible: the now-ex campaign organizer who gathered the signatures in question? The local elections administrators who failed to flag potential forgeries? Or Matos herself?

That depends on whom you ask.

Matos’ campaign broke its silence on the allegations and multiple criminal investigations Thursday morning. In an emailed statement, Brexton Isaacs, Matos’ campaign manager, sought to distance the campaign from the part-time organizer who collected the signatures in question.

Rhode Island Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos (Courtesy of Sabina for RI)

“Our campaign was deeply disappointed and angry to learn of reports that inaccurate signatures were submitted to the campaign,” Isaacs said. “Our campaign provided clear instructions to circulators on how to correctly gather signatures. Anyone who violated these detailed instructions and the nomination process has no place in our campaign and will be held accountable. Any insinuation that our campaign in any way encouraged this is simply false and contradictory to the facts.”

Isaacs also confirmed that Holly McClaren, who began doing part-time field work for Matos’ campaign earlier this month, is “no longer involved.” He did not respond to follow-up questions about the circumstances of McClaren’s departure.

McClaren has attracted growing attention in recent days after it was revealed that she collected signatures now under investigation in Jamestown and Newport for suspected fraud. A Providence resident whose LinkedIn page says she works as a bartender and a “team supervisor” for a bookkeeping business, McClaren did not return multiple calls for comment.

The Rhode Island Current also visited the Smith Hill triple-decker where she lives on Thursday morning. A neighbor on an upstairs floor who identified herself as McClaren’s landlord said that McClaren was not home, and declined to be interviewed.

In addition to the two nomination forms in question in Jamestown and Newport, McClaren submitted 40 additional forms of signatures for Matos’ campaign – more than a third of the 110 total forms submitted to local boards of canvassers, according to documents obtained by Rhode Island Current. Many of the forms submitted by McClaren had more than half of the signatures invalidated by local boards of canvassers, including her own, because she does not live in the district.

Only Jamestown and Newport’s election officials flagged any of the signatures on Matos’ forms as suspicious enough to warrant police investigation. But two groups – Democratic candidate Don Carlson’s campaign and the Rhode Island Working Families Party – have asked for a closer look at more of Matos’ signatures. The Rhode Island Board of Elections will take up those requests at its meeting Friday.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha is “taking the lead” on criminal investigation into signature fraud, Brian Hodge, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said in an email Thursday. That’s on top of the investigations opened by Jamestown and Newport police earlier this week. 

A sign points the way for candidates, campaign staff and voters attending a signing party at Gaudet Middle School in Middletown on July 10. Representatives from nearly a dozen Democratic candidates in the CD1 race attended.
(Janine L. Weisman.Rhode Island Current)

‘How did they not catch that?’

It’s not atypical for some of the signatures on any candidate’s nomination forms to be ruled out by local election administrators. 

That so many of McClaren’s signatories were invalidated by local boards of canvassers was striking to Theresa Bucci, a canvassing aide in Cranston. Even more surprising to Bucci: the local elections officials in more than a dozen other cities and towns didn’t flag McClaren’s forms as suspicious.

“When you look at those papers, you can tell these are all in the same handwriting,” she said of McClaren’s submission forms. “How did they not catch that?”

Bucci has a trained eye for these kinds of red flags after 28 years on the job. But other elections staffers should have at least some of the same skills, thanks to regular training through the Rhode Island Board of Elections every election cycle. Two years ago, the local elections staff also received FBI training on handwriting analysis, Bucci said.

It might seem like an arduous task – combing through hundreds of scribbles to cross-check names, addresses, and match the John Hancocks on the form to those in each municipal database. But Bucci said it’s gotten easier since records were digitized five years ago. A list of 100 signatures might take her an hour to validate, she said.

Of course, it’s not purely objective – human judgment comes into play when comparing the handwriting of a signature. 

“You’d be surprised how peoples’ signatures do change,” she said.

When you look at those papers, you can tell these are all in the same handwriting. How did they not catch that?

– Theresa Bucci, a canvassing aide in Cranston.

Rich Luchette, a former spokesman for former U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, whose departure from Congress prompted the special election, also questioned the seemingly opaque signature verification process.

“It’s sort of a black box,” he said. “Of the 19 cities and towns, two have made criminal referrals, but for the 17 who didn’t, I haven’t seen a great job of them showing their work,” he said.

Luchette thought a more centralized process – through the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office, for example – might improve transparency and consistency. The existing practice relies on the Secretary of State to certify signatures after each board validates them.

In Illinois, for example, where he worked as a campaign staffer previously, the state Board of Elections has access to every signature submitted, with campaign staff able to review other candidate’s signatures line by line against filed versions of the handwriting. 

“The day after Thanksgiving in 2009, I sat in that office for hours with a bunch of other staff, just going through it all, “ Luchette said.

It was through this process that Barack Obama ousted three of his challengers for invalid signatures during his first run for office in 1996, seeking to represent Chicago’s south side in the Illinois Senate. 

Training practices vary

Matos’ campaign gave its signature collectors a typed, two-page document outlining the rules for signature collection when they picked up nomination sheets, Isaacs said. He did not specify whether this was accompanied with an oral presentation.

Most campaigns relied heavily or entirely on volunteers to collect the minimum 500 certified signatures needed for candidates to reach the ballot. Often those volunteers  are family or friends of the candidate, not experts in state election law, but that’s no excuse, especially for a paid staffer, according to Democrat Aaron Regunberg.

His campaign did not pay anyone to collect his signatures, but “if we did, those people would be very closely screened and trained,” Regunberg said.

It’s a delicate balance between being careful of who you enlist to represent your campaign – paid or not – and not wanting to leave people out, said Nicholas Marroletti, Carlson’s campaign manager.

“My background is in organizing so I think it’s really important in the democratic process that anyone who wants to raise their hand is able to,” Marroletti said. “But it’s also an important legal process so you have to make sure people are well-trained and that you are following up with them so they don’t misrepresent the campaign.”

In Carlson’s campaign, that meant a 30-minute presentation to volunteers before every signature collection event, outlining the rules of who can sign and answering questions. The campaign staff also checked Carlson’s nomination papers before turning them over to local boards of canvassers to identify signatures that might be invalid – usually a case of human error like a voter signing the wrong municipality’s form or forgetting they were registered at an old address, Marroletti said.

Isaacs touted Matos’ “proven track record of integrity” from her 12 years in city and state office. But other candidates in the race blasted her for undermining the election.

“The reality is that the Lt. Governor has taken actions that – whether they were purposeful or the result of a serious lack of oversight and judgment – have undermined faith in our democratic processes at a time when standing up for fair elections has never been more important,” Regunberg said in a statement. “I think she owes Rhode Islanders an apology, a transparent explanation of how this happened and a clear plan for how her campaign will make sure that it does not continue undermining our democratic norms and principles moving forward.”

Gabe Amo, another Democratic candidate, said in a statement, he was “shocked by the absolute refusal of Lt. Governor Matos to explain these instances of election fraud.”

Luchette criticized Matos’ campaign for failing to address the allegations more quickly.

“This has not been an exemplary model for how to do crisis communications,” Luchette said. “We’re now on day four of this. I think day one, they should have put out a statement, conducted their own audit, addressed the concerns head-on. The way this crisis has been managed does not instill confidence in her candidacy.”


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.