One recent Sunday night, I stopped by a Wendy’s in Colton, a gritty Inland Empire city. I wasn’t there for a square hamburger or Frosty, but rather to glimpse the struggles of California’s peculiar system of democracy.
California’s governance might seem to emanate from the marble halls of Sacramento. But if you want to see how our state really treats democracy – as fast food, with laws and constitutional amendments rapidly fed to us, with little deliberation – then you should get to Wendy’s.
Yes, initiatives are dreamed up by powerful people in beautiful California places, like billionaire Tom Steyer’s ranch on the San Mateo coast. But you’ll find the people who put those measures on the ballot at Wendy’s, with its air conditioning, free Wi-Fi, and cheap eats.
The people there were professional petition circulators, who had gathered signatures to qualify initiatives for California’s November ballot. They are important because of California’s democratic laziness. Our state could address its biggest problems through slow collaboration and negotiation in the legislature. But we Californians prefer to address challenges speedily through direct democracy.
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Because we lean so heavily on ballot initiatives, we end up leaning too heavily on circulators like the folks at Wendy’s. Yes, initiatives are dreamed up by powerful people in beautiful California places, like billionaire Tom Steyer’s ranch on the San Mateo coast. But you’ll find the people who put those measures on the ballot at Wendy’s, with its air conditioning, free Wi-Fi, and cheap eats.
Twice a week, a regional petition coordinator does a fast-food tour to collect signatures from circulators, hitting Wendy’s, Lake Elsinore’s Starbucks, Menifee’s Jack-In-the-Box, and the Corona Carl’s Jr.
Paid petition circulators have been part of California’s initiative process for a century. But recently, the system has come under extreme stress.
First blame Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrats for requiring all initiatives to appear only on November ballots, when Democratic turnout is high. Previously, initiatives were spread out over different elections; now all the initiatives circulate at the same time.
This adds to the demands on circulators at a time when their workforce is aging and shrinking. California’s cost of living has pushed younger circulators to cheaper states with direct democracy, like Colorado and Washington.
Worse, the number of places where circulators can work is shrinking. Longstanding legal precedents give petitioners the right to work in malls and outside stores, but many retailers ban circulators anyway and dare them to sue in the state’s clogged courts.
And the voters themselves are so angry about politics that they rarely sign, especially in rich places. (“I only send circulators to Beverly Hills as punishment,” one coordinator says). So circulators work poor neighborhoods, where people are less rude.
“I’m in Chowchilla,” Arenza Thigpen Jr., president of an international association of signature gatherers, told me from the Madera County town. “They have an amazing group of people here, and it’s pretty much untouched territory.”
These trends in time, labor, and space have sent the price of a signature soaring, from $1 a decade ago to $6. This restricts ballot access to the very richest. It once cost $1 million to qualify a measure statewide; the price tag now approaches $5 million.
There are ways to make the process less costly and more democratic. Let a citizens’ commission evaluate ideas and put the best on the ballot, without costly signatures. Give ballot initiative proponents two years, rather than six months, so they aren’t rushed and forced to pay high signature prices. Or permit digital petitions to save money and make verification easier. But state officials refuse to entertain such ideas, because they threaten the exclusive ballot access of wealthy interests.
At Wendy’s, circulators spent 40 minutes checking petitions to make sure everything was filled in (some counties void even valid signatures because of minor mistakes with petitions). Then they got paid advances. If too many of their signatures turn out to be invalid, circulators must give back money. These “chargebacks” are dreaded.
They also shared gossip about a circulator inducing her labor the day after the final turn-in.
So ended another trying season of California democracy.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.