California Forum

Paid signature gatherers are gaming the ballot. California’s bounty system must change

Petition gathering in 2007 outside a grocery store in Rocklin. Sen. Josh Newman, who has been targeted in a recall campaign, says paid signature hunters are distorting campaigns.
Petition gathering in 2007 outside a grocery store in Rocklin. Sen. Josh Newman, who has been targeted in a recall campaign, says paid signature hunters are distorting campaigns. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

Walking into the local Target or Trader Joe’s can be a tricky business these days.

The shopping center has become the public square. You try not to make eye contact as you run the gauntlet past the men and women sitting behind their tables or accosting you at the door with their clipboards. But the skilled ones are like the carnival barkers of old. They use fast talk to stop you and then deceptions to reel you in. If that doesn’t work, they browbeat you.

Their aim is simple: to get you to sign your name to a petition to place yet another measure onto the California ballot. These signature gatherers aren’t volunteers who live in our neighborhoods, and they’re not engaged in the noble work of citizen-powered democracy.

As a state senator who finds himself in the crosshairs of a recall campaign, I’ve learned a thing or two about devious signature gatherers firsthand. Why spend ten minutes arguing with a voter over the merits of a cause when a well-told lie gets the job done in a minute? Don’t like that petition? Sign this one.

These are highly skilled pros: paid signature hunters who crisscross a well-worn circuit from county to county, state to state, feeding at the money trough of our partisan times.

The ballot initiatives they’re selling are often backed by wealthy special interests whose agendas are mostly hidden in the fine print. Depending on the measure, and the deep pockets backing it, signature gatherers are paid anywhere from $3 to $15 for each signature they coax out of voters.

Many increase their yield by shilling for three or four paid initiatives at a time. The more signatures gathered, the bigger the paycheck. Why spend ten minutes arguing with a voter over the merits of a cause when a well-told lie gets the job done in a minute? Don’t like that petition? Sign this one.

It may surprise you to learn that intentionally misleading a voter as part of a signature-gathering effort is a crime in California. But it’s a crime that almost never gets punished. As initiatives become ever more driven by cash-laden special interests for whom politics is just another return on their investment, these tactics are coming under fire.

Voters are now sharing accounts of paid signature gatherers wielding outright lies to trick them into supporting a particular initiative.

Over the past few years alone, voters have endured the unscrupulous practices of paid signature gatherers time and again in local and statewide campaigns.

▪  In 2014, a venture capitalist’s effort to split California into six states failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. The campaign, funded by millions of dollars, was marred by paid signature gatherers camped outside Walmarts and Targets who lied about the intent of the measure. Some of the paid workers claimed their petition would prevent the state from dividing. Others claimed it would stop a tax increase.

▪  That same year, the Oakland City Council incurred the wrath of a refuse company by awarding its contract to a rival. The company then launched a referendum drive that used false messaging to gather signatures. “Please Sign to Stop the City from Increasing YOUR Garbage Fees,” one placard read. “STOP Oakland’s New 50% TAX Increase for Waste Removal,” read another.

▪  This past year, Irvine voters were deceived into signing a referendum petition to overturn the city’s decision to allow the building of a new veterans’ cemetery for Orange County. Signature gatherers were caught telling voters that if their efforts failed, the bodies of deceased veterans would be dug up and moved across town.

As a state senator who finds himself in the crosshairs of a recall campaign, I’ve learned a thing or two about devious signature gatherers firsthand. To be sure, there are many signature gatherers, both paid and volunteer, who do their work within the letter and spirit of the law.

But the pay-per-signature system, by virtue of the incentives it creates and rewards, subverts the intent of our state’s founding fathers, who envisioned a people-powered system of referenda and propositions that pass or fail on their merits, not on how well the system can be gamed.

We can fix these abuses and maintain California’s rich tradition of referendum and recall without treading on the First or Fourteenth Amendments. Eight states, including Oregon, Colorado and Nebraska, have already adopted laws to do so. They have simply taken the bounty out of signature gathering. No more paydays based on how many signatures you gather. Instead, workers earn an hourly wage and maybe a bonus for a job well done.

I recently authored a bill, SB 1394, that will help clean up the system in California by prohibiting initiative backers from paying workers on a per-signature basis. The workers themselves would also face fines and time in jail of up to six months if they participate in such practices. And citizens would be empowered to call out abuses.

The days of the three-card monte dealer have passed from the street. Democracy would be better served if we ended the incentivized signature-gathering game as well.

Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, represents the 29th Senate District, which spans Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. Reach him at Senator.Newman@sen.ca.gov.

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