by Lindsay Robertson
I was seventeen, and I needed a job. I already worked at Baskin Robbins, but could only manage to get on the schedule for a pointless four hours per week, and I needed to keep up with my friends. So I turned to the classified section of my local paper, the Tallahassee Democrat, where I found an ad soliciting people to circulate petitions for money. It had some ridiculous claim like “Make up to $100 per hour!” I was always a sucker for a get-rich-quick scheme, so I got my mom to drive me across town to an office park for a group interview. The “interview” was really a training session, because we were only getting paid by the signature and the organizers didn’t care who we were.
The people in charge were a sloppy-looking middle-aged couple who smelled like stale cigarettes back when that was a weird smell, and drove a huge old busted sedan. Neither of them looked like they made $100 per hour. By depressing fluorescent office light, they went over the petition. It consisted of two parts: one was for a proposition so dull that I don’t even remember it. A registered voter’s signature on this petition would garner me fifty cents. The second part, though, was for offshore drilling. Specifically: in favor of offshore drilling. This precious second signature would pay out $1.50. The petitions were due back in three weeks.
This is how the female half of the organizer couple told us to sell it: “This petition is just to put the issue on the ballot so that the people can vote for or against it. Otherwise, the politicians will just decide for themselves.” Everyone in the room nodded their heads.
I was seventeen, and I was an idiot, but I wasn’t THAT stupid. I knew that that was not how ballot measures worked, but by then I was already mentally tallying the registered voters I knew and imagining their heads as two shiny new dollar bills.
When I came out of the session an hour later, my mom was waiting in the parking lot. She could already tell I was excited and that I’d “gotten” the “job,” because I was holding a box containing hundreds of petitions and two pathetic little American flags. She furrowed her brow and asked if I had told them I was under eighteen. “Yep!” I said. “They said that was fine!” My mom pursed her lips in a way that communicated that she was unsure of what this would mean for her as my personal chauffeur, and also that this was a strange job for a seventeen-year-old.
When we got home, I unpacked the petitions and ran around the house stockpiling pens. After dinner, I sat with my parents at the kitchen table and explained the petition. I tried to play dumb about the political goals of the ballot measures, but unfortunately they read the fine print. “This is for offshore drilling, Lindsay!” my mom exclaimed. “We’re not signing a petition for offshore drilling.”
I tried to give them the “This is just to put it before the people!” line but of course they weren’t buying it. I then tried a selling tactic I’d thought of all by myself on the way home: “It’s for OFFSHORE drilling, though. Not on the shore. Off the shore, far away from the shore.” As if there were only two kinds of drilling: literally on the beach, or way way out in the middle of the ocean in international who-cares waters.
It didn’t work. They agreed to sign the boring part of the petition but refused to sign the second on moral principle, and gave me $3 to make up for the money I’d lost to their pesky integrity. My mom suggested that I throw away the second part of the petition altogether and just get people to sign the first. “Do you want our beaches to be like Louisiana’s? Or Mississippi’s? Or Alabama’s? Offshore drilling has completely ruined their beaches.” But I was seventeen, and the idea that anything I did could have actual consequences was completely alien to me.
And so the first thing I did in my new capacity as petitioner was go up to my room and forge my parents’ signatures on the second part of each of their petitions. This was a job for which I was already overqualified from years of permission slips and report cards.
The next Saturday, as suggested by the organizers, I went to the nearest post office, where I set up the family card table, decorated it with the American flags, and stocked it with clipboards to which I’d attached pens with string and tape. “Sign the Petition Here!” said my handmade intentionally vague poster, hanging from the card table, in red and blue marker. “Let your voice be heard!”
The idea was that people who go to the post office are all registered voters — the only type of person whose signature would count (and the organizers assured us they would be looking them all up.) I’m not sure where they got this idea, because the only type of people I was running into were people who were running an annoying payoff-free errand and didn’t have time to sign my petition. The only thing that worked in my favor was the fact that if you see someone holding a clipboard and you’re in a hurry and they say “Excuse me, are you a registered voter?” the automatic go-away answer is “Yes.” So I could trap a few by replying “Great!” The few people who did take the time to hear me out usually got alarmed at the offshore drilling part at first (I was careful to emphasize the first syllable: “OFF-shore drilling”), but most accepted my line and signed it anyway. After all, they’d already gotten that far. May as well make this kid happy.
After a day largely full of frustrating rejection, my mom picked me up. My petition tally was dismally in the single digits.
A week later, even after soliciting (and in all cases, receiving) two signatures from every neighbor or friends’ parent, I’d still only gotten less than fifty or so, which was not enough to finance the dream of quitting my soul-sucking four-hour-per-week ice cream slinging job and hanging out with my friends literally all the time all summer. In my desperation to find gullible conservative registered voters, I even considered going one Sunday back to the barrel of fish that was our church, but you don’t exactly denounce a church forever to your parents in a written letter and go back a month later because there’s suddenly money involved. My greed did have some bounds.
It might have been the “what if?” scenario of all those lost church fellowship hall signatures that gave me the idea to commit forgery. I mean, any person would have thought of it, even if they dismissed it. But besides the registered voter clause, there was one other built-in fraud deterrent that kept the petition racket from working on the honor system: the zip code. All of the other information the form needed about a person we could just find in the phone book next to their names, but not the zip code. I thought the zip code issue, along with what I imagined were my natural gifts as a saleswoman, would keep me honest. But then I realized that everyone I went to church with lived in the same neighborhood and had the same zip code. And that’s where I went astray.
Here is the montage of a teenager, let’s say played by a young Reese Witherspoon since I already look back on this entire enterprise as Tracy Flick-ian, holed up in her room for hours looking up names and addresses of people she knows in the phone book and forging two signatures for each one. Let the montage have an “a-ha!” moment when the teenager, flipping through the phone book, finds a section that actually lists the zip code for every single street in town. “Why would this section even be needed for anything else but petition forgery?,” she wonders. Let there be a moment where her eyes get big as saucers when she realizes her income is now limited only by her ability to keep filling out the forms even with angry blisters on her right hand. Oh, and then there’s the inevitable “Gosh, forgery is actually hard work!” moment. Yeah.
At first I was fastidious, choosing names based on streets I recognized from rich neighborhoods because rich people were most likely to be registered to vote. And I had fun with the signatures, choosing a different style for each person according to whatever I thought seemed most appropriate or most “random.” But that got old fast, and soon I was just picking a name from every page, looking up the zip code, and chicken-scratching an unreadable signature.
At some point, I told myself that I had to stop, because I couldn’t have so many more signatures than the other workers. But I also argued to myself that since I was the only kid among them, maybe it would be assumed that I would have a few more. I probably filled out about 150 or so, quadrupling my honestly-gotten gains. It wasn’t that many more than I would have gotten if I’d gone to church-a neat and tidy rationalization I reminded myself of frequently. It’s pretty easy to steal when you don’t know who you’re stealing from. (But it sucks when you later realize it’s “The American People” and “Endangered Birds.”)
At the end of the three weeks, my mom drove me to turn in my petitions. I was instructed to bring back all of them, even the unsigned ones, so I made a point of putting those on top so my remarkable success as a petitioner wouldn’t raise any Mom red flags. The organizer lady seemed pleasantly surprised, but not a bit suspicious, when I marched in with so many signed petitions. About a month later, a check arrived, and I was richer than I’d ever been in my life. It came with a list showing the number of accepted and rejected petitions, and almost all were accepted. Too many, in fact, to be demographically possible even to my untrained eye. The organizers probably didn’t check the registered voters after all. They seemed like that type of shady person, the kind that I was totally not going to be once I was no longer just a silly crafty doggone kid with her funny little scams.
Despite Lindsay Robertson’s valiant efforts, the offshore drilling petition did not get enough signatures to make it to the ballot in Florida in 1994. She never committed fraud again and would like to point out that what she did was not as bad as texting while driving.
Photo by cmakin.