SACRAMENTO -- State Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres on Thursday asked Attorney General Jerry Brown to investigate what Torres called fraudulent "bait and switch" tactics to deceive voters into signing a petition to place a Republican-backed Electoral College measure on the ballot.

Torres said signature gatherers working for Rancho Cordova-based Arno Political Consultants told voters they were signing a petition to stop Iraq war funding, one for children's hospital care and another barring election officials from releasing election results early.

He said even he was confronted last week by circulators near Bakersfield who insisted he sign it if he considered himself a Christian.

The highly charged partisan measure would change the way California allocates its electoral votes in such a way that the Republican presidential nominee would gain as many as 20 extra votes -- the equivalent of Ohio -- and could sway the outcome of an election.

Currently, California awards all 55 electoral votes to the overall winner; the measure would allot them primarily by congressional district.

"It was very clear these people were trying to make money, and I feel sorry for them," Torres said at a Capitol news conference.

"But there are minimum-wage jobs that don't involve bait and switch and fraudulent activities on behalf of Republican hacks, and we're happy to refer them to jobs they can have rather than get paid $2.50 a signature to lie to people."

The executive director of Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a liberal ballot initiative watchdog group, also outlined what she said was a pattern of fraudulent behavior by the GOP consulting group in initiative campaigns across the nation since 2003.

The founder and CEO of Arno Political Consultants, Michael Arno, denied the charges and threatened to file a defamation lawsuit against the Washington-based nonprofit group that's funded by labor unions and others associated with liberal causes.

"I will sue their board members because they're doing this with malice and no knowledge of the facts," Arno said. "Why would anybody bait and switch this issue? This is an easy issue on the street. I got 150,000 signatures last week. That should tell you something."

Arno Political Consultants, known as one of the largest and most successful signature-gathering firms in the country, has collected more than 120 million signatures to qualify more than 500 ballot initiatives in 20 states since its founding in 1979.

In a letter to the attorney general, Kristina Wilfore, the executive director of Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, urged Brown to "scrutinize Arno Political Consulting's (sic) dealings to ensure that they are acting in good faith while circulating in California."

She delivered a 63-page report, "Abusing Direct Democracy -- Bad Actors in the Signature Gathering Process," in which she outlined various allegations against Arno, including a 2004 investigation in South Florida that found the names of dead people on petitions to authorize an increase in gambling and to vote against a high-speed train.

"The stakes are very high for this measure," she said at a news conference, "and if it has an opportunity to influence the presidential election, we should ensure that it does qualify through a clean and legal process."

Republicans accused Wilfore of carrying out an agenda, pointing to her own words on the center's Web site, in which she said, "We still need to do everything we can to keep it from reaching the June ballot."

"Everything apparently includes making up these bogus charges," said David Gilliard, a spokesman for California Counts, who is the organizer of the ballot measure.

California Counts is trying to get the measure on the June ballot and must collect 434,000 valid signatures by Nov. 13, a deadline suggested by the secretary of state.

The group inherited about 110,000 signatures from a previous effort led by GOP attorney Tom Hiltachk before he quit the campaign over a $175,000 contribution made by a campaign fundraiser for Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.

Since then, Democratic opponents of the measure have seized on connections between Giuliani and top consultants of the new effort, including Anne Dunsmore, who was Giuliani's chief fundraiser until late September.

California Counts is expected to file its campaign finance reports in the next few days, which Gilliard said will show money coming from supporters of various GOP presidential candidates -- not just Giuliani.

Reach Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101 or sharmon@bayareanewsgroup.com.