The voice on the telephone recording could have been that of a stockbroker in a bull market. Instead, it was the head of a firm that collects signatures for proposed initiatives scrambling to qualify for California’s November ballot.
Carl Towe’s call-in service provides updates on the unprecedented and rapidly rising cost for signatures on more than one dozen measures in circulation. A 25-year veteran of the business, Towe ended a recent message with a cheery instruction to petitioners: “Make the hay while the sun shines.”
This year, the light is blinding. As campaigns rush to beat their qualification deadlines, political veterans say the value of each name on the petitions voters sign, combined with the number of petitions on the street, is unprecedented.
I have never, never seen this much money paid on this many petitions. Ever.
Fred Kimball, Kimball Petition Management
Signatures for Gov. Jerry Brown’s parole initiative are $5 apiece. For a measure to raise the tobacco tax, $4. For recreational marijuana legalization, $2. Petitions in a typical year may start at $1 and work their way up based on how they are producing.
Competition for valid signatures is so fierce that the firm working on those measures started a $20,000 raffle for those who submit 75 signatures for each petition. The glut of measures on the streets necessitated the unusual bounty, said Fred Kimball. He wants to entice signature-gatherers to carry his proposals over others.
“Each one of these petitions on its own would qualify. Any five of these would qualify. Maybe any seven would qualify,” Kimball said. “But this many? You are loading a (petition) circulator down ... with all the petitions. So you are fighting to move up that board.”
Campaigns that offer less for each signature may find themselves left behind. A complicated measure might be more costly because it takes a circulator more time to explain.
Nothing is easy this year.
Angelo Paparella, PCI Consultants
“I have never, never seen this much money paid on this many petitions. Ever,” said Kimball, whose father is credited with founding the industry in the 1960s. “And trust me, I have been in this industry longer than anybody out there.”
Seven measures are already headed for the fall ballot, including a referendum to overturn a plastic bag ban and a $9 billion facilities bond for schools and community colleges. Political committees spent about $9.5 million in petition payments through Dec. 31.
Some cite the lower signature thresholds needed to make the ballot this year – 365,880 for an initiative, and 585,407 for a constitutional amendment – as sparking the fresh wave of activity – and spending – over the past two months. The numbers are lower because they are based on turnout in the last gubernatorial election, which was particularly low in 2014. But experts said that has had little to do with the uptick.
Instead, they attribute the rise to the presidential election year, which brings higher turnout of Democratic voters. Deep-pocketed groups seeking to raise revenue through their measures, including a tobacco tax and and an income-tax increase extension, want to capitalize on the more liberal turnout. The field is more crowded than in past presidential years because Brown and the state Legislature in 2012 shifted initiatives from the June to the November ballot.
Elevated costs mean some campaigns are having to set aside more money, in some cases millions of dollars, just to qualify for the ballot. Because not every signature belongs to a valid registered voter, campaigns need 500,000 to as many as 1 million signatures to have a good shot. Once they qualify, contested campaigns may have to spend tens of millions more to fend off opponents and educate voters.
The Democratic governor is paying top dollar for his own measure this year. Still facing legal hurdles, his measure making it easier for nonviolent offenders to get parole was one of the last to hit the streets. His campaign is supplementing its paid effort with a big volunteer push.
“It’s obvious that whoever pays the most has got a better shot of getting theirs on the ballot, and right now Mr. Jerry Brown ... he is the one that’s paying the most. His came out the latest and he’s pushing it the hardest,” Towe said.
A proposal by former NFL defensive back Kermit Alexander to speed up death penalty reviews is at $4 a signature, the same amount being sought by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s gun-control initiative to mandate background checks for ammunition purchases. The figures don’t include the extra couple of dollars per signature that campaigns generally pay to petition-management firms.
A crackdown by retailers also has made reaching voters a trickier task.
Although fortunate petitioners can get a sign-off from retail managers to work at shopping centers, Angelo Paparella of PCI Consultants said many big-box retailers and grocery stores have effectively limited campaign activity near their grounds.
“Nothing is easy this year,” Paparella said.
Add to that the wet conditions brought by El Niño storms, keeping people indoors, and it’s understandable that campaigns are experimenting with unconventional approaches such as postmarked letters to amass signatures.
“Typically, it’s been hard to put those together in a way that is more economical than the traditional methods,” said Dan Newman, whose SCN Strategies is working on Brown’s initiative. “But at some point the traditional methods become so expensive that unorthodox techniques are worth trying. Every campaign is concerned because it’s increased so rapidly for everybody.”
Eileen Ray, of Discovery Petition Management in Sacramento, is one of the few coordinators statewide that directly contracts with all of the firms. Ray, who was involved in a legal battle over access for petition circulators in the late 1990s, said retailers today are using a recent case involving unionized grocery store workers.
In the case, the California Supreme Court held that for it to qualify as a public forum, areas within a shopping center must be designed in a way that induces shoppers to congregate for entertainment, relaxation or conversation, “and not merely to walk to or from a parking area, or to walk from one store to another, or to view merchandise and advertising displays.”
Several stores, including Target, have policies banning solicitors at outlets nationwide. “To provide a distraction-free shopping environment for our guests, we prohibit solicitation and petitioning at our stores regardless of the cause being represented to the fullest extent allowed by law,” Target’s policy states.
You can’t stand out in front of that same store and talk to them about signing a petition? This is America. This ain’t communist China.
Carl Towe, CTA petition campaign management
This week, security guards outside Walmarts in Sacramento and West Sacramento said they regularly chase away signature gatherers.
“It’s terrible. It’s sickening,” said Towe, citing problems with Target, Safeway and other retailers.
“You could stand out in front of a store and talk to somebody about the weather or about their children or about their dog,” he added. “But you can’t stand out in front of that same store and talk to them about signing a petition? This is America. This ain’t communist China.”
Trench warfare around the petition process seldom flares openly in campaigns. But it was on display last week when proponents of the cigarette tax alleged that tobacco industry lobbyists threatened to sink the tobacco tax and the income tax extension on high earners if anti-smoking bills advanced in the state Legislature.
Kimball said while the current bonanza may look advantageous for firms such as his, it all amounts to a “short-term gain for long-term loss.” He worries it will raise the barrier to entry for direct democracy and “ruin the process.”
He gave the example of a campaign that starts next year with the aim to qualify for the fall 2018 ballot. The campaign may expect to pay $1 a signature. Now that circulators have a taste for much more, he said, their interest may wane.
Each election cycle when there’s one month or so to go, Kimball said he questions whether he’ll ever do it again. But then he goes back.
“It’s an addiction,” he said. “It’s the high of doing this stuff.”
The going rates
Prices for initiative signatures as of Thursday:
Gov. Jerry Brown’s measure making it easier for nonviolent offenders to get parole
Death penalty repeal championed by “M*A*S*H” star Mike Farrell
Charles Munger’s measure banning the Legislature from passing bills unless they’ve been in print and published for 72 hours
Proposal by NFL defensive back Kermit Alexander to speed up death penalty reviews
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s gun-control measure
Measure increasing state cigarette taxes by $2 per pack pushed by doctors, dentists and unions
Proposal to extend temporary income tax increases by another 12 years
Effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 for large employers
Measure to bar hospitals from paying annual compensation that’s more than the president of the United States (currently $450,000)
Napster co-founder Sean Parker’s measure to legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older
Measure requiring stores to deposit carry-out bag sale proceeds into a fund administered by Wildlife Conservation Board
Source: Victory Consultants, Carl Towe & Associates and Discovery Petition Management