Update: The president of the state building trades unions has acknowledged helping fund the effort. Read more here.
Update 11:36 a.m.: A website for the group has been launched at this link
As backers of several high-profile ballot measures hit the streets looking for signatures, a new radio ad has surfaced warning listeners that signing initiative petitions puts voters "at risk for identity theft."
The 60-second spot, which is airing on at least one Southern California radio station, features a man telling his spouse she should not have signed a petition at the grocery store.
"The Legislature called it an identity theft starter kit. Now we really need to watch our bank statements and credit information," he says.
"That's it, I'm not signing any more petitions," the woman responds. "I guess the lesson here is not to give our name and address to anyone we don't know."
The identity of the group behind the ad remains a mystery, but the timing of the launch suggests its aim is to derail one of several high-profile measures currently trying to qualify for the 2012 ballot.
The spot claims to be paid for by a group called "Californians Against Identity Theft." The coalition has no website and has not filed a campaign committee with the Secretary of State, though the content of the ad likely would not trigger disclosure requirements because it does not mention a specific measure or candidate.
The group does not appear to have any ties to legitimate organizations dedicated to protecting consumers from identity theft. A spokeswoman for the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center disputed the premise of the ad.
Under state law, it is illegal to use initiative signatures for anything other than the initiative petition. Election code also prohibits felons ineligible to register to vote from serving as signature gatherers.
Derek Cressman of government watchdog group Common Cause said he was "hard pressed" think of a situation where signing an initiative petition led to identity theft. He said the ad sounded like an attempt to "provoke a fear" to discourage people from signing petitions.
"If they really wanted people to take their warning seriously, they'd have more credibility by revealing their own identities," he said.
Petitions for 14 proposed measures have been cleared for circulation, though the ones that have gained the most attention are a referendum to repeal a law requiring some online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Californians and a proposed initiative to block unions from using dues paid through automatic payroll deductions for political contributions without permission.
Supporters of the so-called "paycheck protection" measure, which would also restrict political contributions by unions and corporations, have reported spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on paid signature gatherers to secure a spot on next year's ballot. The effort has sparked at least one labor-backed campaign to prevent the measure from qualifying.
SEIU California is dispatching its own representatives to the streets to persuade voters not to sign petitions. The union has sent members a toll-free number to report canvassers circulating petitions for the measure, urging them to dial in "if you see someone trying to fool voters in your community into signing away our rights."
SEIU California spokesman Christopher Calhoun said the union's effort is intended to "make sure folks get a chance to hear our side of the story" before signing the petitions.
He said the union is not involved in the radio ad.
"I don't know anything about that," he said.
Listen to the full spot at this link.