Have you signed any political petitions here in Maine lately? You might have been tricked into signing something you never intended to sign.

If you spend any time downtown in Maine's bigger cities or towns, you've probably run into people asking for your signature on petitions. Most of these people are good, honest Mainers who are passionate about the cause they are supporting. Most, but not all.

Over the last two weeks, we've heard some troubling stories from listeners around the state about people possibly using deceptive tactics to gather signatures. Nobody really believed them, until it happened to us right here in Portland.

In at least five instances that we know of, and possibly many more, petitioners who are gathering signatures to open a new casino have allegedly started conversations with a statement like "Do you support funding for education?" Most people do. Funding for schools is supported by record numbers of Americans, so that's probably a good question to ask if you want a positive result.

When you do a little research, you discover that the casino proposal would supposedly allocate a very small percentage of eventual gambling profits to schools and education initiatives way down the road, if it's ever built.

Whether you're for or against a new casino in southern Maine isn't really the point. The point is that a LOT of people may have signed a petition in support of a new casino thinking it was for more education funding.

The tactic that these petitioners use is simple: They fold the large, broadsheet-size petitions in half, so that you can only see the lower half of the document that you sign. The legal language that you're agreeing to is above the fold, and may be hidden from view.

Don't be tricked into signing something that you don't support or aren't sure of.

On Tuesday afternoon, we spoke to a representative from the Secretary of State's office, and here's the bottom line: Petitioners can say pretty much anything they want to say to get your signature. The burden of responsibility is on the person signing the petition to verify it is what the petitioner says it is.

So... what do you do if someone comes up to you and asks for your signature?

Here's what you need to know before you have an interaction with a petitioner:

1) By law, you have the right to read the legal text of the petition, and they must show it to you if you ask for it. Never just "take their word" for what the petition is about. Petitioners might say the document supports or opposes one topic or issue, but always make sure by asking to see the printed description at the top of the page. Always know what you are signing. They can say anything, and it's your responsibility to ask.

2) By signing a petition, you are telling the Maine state government to take action based on what the petition says. In most cases, if a petition gets enough signatures, the state is forced to put certain issues or questions on the next state-wide ballot for a vote. Petitions can also be used to get the legislature to consider bills or veto laws that have been passed. It's a big deal, so make sure you understand what a petition does before you sign it.

3) You have to be registered to vote to sign a petition. Make sure that name of the town you live in is clearly printed at the top of the page you are signing.

Here in Maine, we call these Citizens Initiatives. Here's the official list from the Secretary of State of all the current petitions that are circulating.

Happy election year!

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