Ballot measures and a broken system

Why the public is losing trust in the ballot initiative process

Weston Mickey has made a living as a signature-gatherer for nine years.

Weston Mickey has made a living as a signature-gatherer for nine years.

Photo By meredith j. Graham

Weston Mickey is fed up, and he wants people to know why.

The 27-year-old Chico man is a professional signature-gatherer—emphasis on “professional.” He has been collecting petition signatures for nine years, has done so all over California and in 20 different states, and has made a reasonable living at it—until now.

“I’ve put so much time and energy into this business,” he said during a recent interview, “but now I see it slipping away.”

The reason: Increasingly, fly-by-night operators are moving in, hiring untrained people and using deceptive practices to get people to sign petitions. It’s turning off voters who might otherwise sign, he said.

He began asking people why they were reluctant to sign. Their answer: They’d been deceived too many times. Previous signature-gatherers had misrepresented the initiatives they were touting, so they no longer could be trusted as a group.

“If people don’t trust the signature-gatherers,” Mickey said, “they won’t sign.”

A handful of large signature-gathering companies dominate the market in California, but the problem lies primarily with the subcontractors, or coordinators, they hire to carry out their petition drives, Mickey said. Too often the subs care far more about maximizing their earnings—they are paid on a per-signature basis—than about giving the public a true account of the initiatives they are circulating.

They are required to show an impartial summary of each initiative, but these often are worded in highly technical language that is hard for most people to decipher. This gives the signature-gatherer an opportunity to spin it however he or she thinks is most likely to get a person to sign.

Too often the result is misrepresentation at best, blatant deception at worst.

The most recent example locally was the Measure A campaign, during which there were numerous complaints that the signature-gatherers were pitching the measure by asking people whether they wanted to see fair elections in Chico.

Who doesn’t want fair elections? But that wasn’t what the measure was calling for.

For his part, Mickey refused to use that pitch, instead simply describing the measure in a disinterested way.

The California Elections Code makes it a misdemeanor offense for a signature-gatherer to intentionally misrepresent or make false statements about a ballot measure, but the laws are rarely enforced.

This is no small matter. What’s true in California is true in most of the 24 states that allow ballot initiatives—there’s a lack of standards, transparency, accountability and oversight in most of them.

And, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, an independent watchdog group, over the last 10 years Americans have voted on more than 1,500 statewide initiatives and referenda with far more than $1 billion being spent on influencing voters. As Californians well know, these measures can have powerful impacts on people’s lives.

For the past two years, BISC has been issuing an annual “State by State Report Card” using a grading scale that rates each state on what it does and doesn’t do to protect the integrity of the initiative process.

California’s grade as of July 2010: F.

BISC and other critics of the system believe that paying circulators by the signature encourages the bending of state laws and spinning the content of ballot measures to get a larger paycheck.

In an effort to reform the system, the California Senate recently passed a bill, SB 448, by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), that would require signature gatherers to wear badges identifying whether they are paid or volunteers, whether they are registered to vote and, if so, in which county.

The Senate also passed a bill, SB 168, making it illegal for signature-gatherers to be paid by the signature, meaning they would have to be paid a flat fee or hourly wage. Majority Leader Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) told the Times she introduced the bill to prevent fraud that might be encouraged by a bounty system.

Republican senators opposed SB 168. Minority Leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga said he worried that it might abridge the right to free expression, and Sen. Mark Wyland of Escondido said it benefits unions with access to large numbers of signature-gatherers and “disenfranchises” groups that must rely on paid signature-gatherers.

Both measures have gone to the Assembly for consideration.

For his part, Weston Mickey thinks there are better ways to clean up the system than by eliminating the signature bounty. In Oregon, he notes, signature-gatherers are required to take a class on ethics and submit to background checks.

He’s worked in states where, even though signature-gatherers are paid on commission, they do a good job. Oregon is one; another is Washington, where the subcontractors are “very experienced” and the signature-gatherers “far more qualified.”

The problem in California, he said, is the proliferation of unlicensed subcontractors and the failure of the state to provide oversight. “There’s a zillion coordinating companies in the state,” he said. “They don’t care about California or what impact the initiatives will have on the state.”