Supporters and opponents of a ballot question designed to roll back the state's historic court ruling allowing same-sex marriage are trading accusations of dirty tricks.
Opponents say signature gatherers are using ''bait and switch" tactics to dupe voters into signing the question, while supporters say gay activists are stealing blank petitions, defacing others to invalidate signatures, and shoving and spitting on signature gatherers.
The dueling allegations were made at a crowded State House hearing yesterday that included 10 voters, each of whom said signature gatherers tried to trick them into signing the petition to ban gay marriage.
In each case, the voters said they were asked to sign a ballot question about the sale of wine in grocery stores and were then told to sign a second sheet of paper without being told it was the initiative to ban same-sex marriage. In some cases they said they were told the second sheet was a backup sheet for the wine question.
''She said 'could you sign the backup copy?' She completely made it clear that it was for beer and wine," said Somerville resident Victoria Ellis. ''I was really disgusted by the tactic."
Angela McElroy, a Florida college student who worked as a paid signature gatherer, said her boss taught her how to deceive voters by arranging both petitions on her clipboard so she could ask voters to sign twice, but they would see only the language for the wine question.
''Mark trained me personally in bait and switch tactics . . . The fraud was looked upon as a game," she said. ''I felt horrible for lying to so many people."
Mark Jacoby is a subcontractor working for California-based Arno Political Consultants. Jacoby twice declined to comment.
Arno Political Consultants was hired by supporters of the ballot question, which would define marriage as the union of a man and woman, to help collect signatures. The company's president, Michael Arno, said he'd never heard of the alleged bait-and-switch tactics. He said Jacoby denied the allegations.
Arno said the signature-gatherers were the true victims.
''We've been pushed. We've been shoved. We've been spit on. We've been asked to leave when we weren't doing anything," he said.
Arno's firm was hired by activists opposed to same-sex marriage, including Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.
Mineau said he also has been the target of intimidation. He said he has received threatening e-mails and had gay magazines sent to his house. He held up sheets of signatures which he said were defaced. ''That's 67 citizens whose rights have been violated."
Mineau said he didn't condone signature gatherers trying to trick voters, but also said voters have to take some responsibility. ''I wouldn't sign anything I hadn't read," he said.
The attorney general conducted spot checks of some signature gatherers and found no discrepancies, Mineau said. A spokesman for the attorney general's office declined to comment.
Supporters of gay marriage said that while individual opponents may occasionally go too far, there is no concerted campaign against signature gatherers.
''Is there an orchestrated effort to harass and intimidate by MassEquality? Absolutely not," said Marc Solomon, political director for the MassEquality, which supports same-sex marriage. ''But it's not someone's constitutional right to use paid signature gatherers to dupe people."
Supporters of the question must gather at least 65,825 signatures from voters before Dec. 7. The question must then be approved by at least one-quarter -- or 50 -- of 200 lawmakers in two separate sessions of the Legislature.
If so approved, the question would then head to the 2008 ballot, where it must garner the support of a majority of voters. Massachusetts is the only state to allow gay marriage.