Mike Sawyer, right, approaches a couple at the Sparks rib cook-off, seeking signatures for two ballot petitions, one seeking fewer smoking restrictions, the other dealing with lawyers’ fees.

Mike Sawyer, right, approaches a couple at the Sparks rib cook-off, seeking signatures for two ballot petitions, one seeking fewer smoking restrictions, the other dealing with lawyers’ fees.

Photo By Dennis Myers

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At the Nugget Rib Cook-off last weekend, beer and ribs weren’t the only things from which money was being made.

Signature gatherers were omnipresent around the event. The signature hunters rack up bounties by enticing people to sign on the dotted line of ballot petitions.

There were two petitions being circulated, both by the same gatherers. One, if qualified with enough signatures, will weaken Nevada’s already permissive smoking restrictions. It is sponsored by slot route operators.

The other petition dealt with lawyers’ fees. It was filed just last week and is so little known that even some people in the legal community were unaware of it. It is the latest round in a group of dueling petitions, which began with a ballot measure dealing with legislative medical malpractice measures and was followed by three succeeding petitions, each trying to trump the others.

Many of the signature gatherers were attired in professionally produced T-shirts reading, “Limit LAWYER’S fees.”

Mike Sawyer, one of the signature gatherers, was being interviewed by the RN&R when his supervisor came up and stopped the interview. The supervisor, who identified himself as Carl Childer of National Petition Management, declined to be interviewed, saying that journalists have “a tendency to … inaccurately describe the petition.” When he was asked how much of a bounty was being paid for signatures, he terminated the encounter.

Before the interview was aborted, Sawyer seemed to be saying that he is a professional signature collector, traveling from one area to another to collect signatures.

Ballot petitions are a major industry in California, with the result that signature gatherers can work as independent contractors, doing nothing but collecting signatures. In Nevada, qualifying a petition for the ballot has just become easier, with a federal court decision overturning a state requirement that signatures be gathered in at least 15 of Nevada’s counties.

That requirement made a statewide organization—or a financial angel—essential to qualifying an initiative petition for the ballot. It also gave less legal weight and value to some signatures than others. The 15-county formula was inserted in the Nevada Constitution in the 1958 election under the sponsorship of an anti-labor business group that didn’t want union membership issues placed on the ballot by petition.

On Aug. 13, U.S. District Judge James Mahan threw out that provision of the state constitution, relying on a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that has invalidated similar provisions in other states.

Since Mahan’s ruling, it has become possible to gather all the needed signatures for ballot petitions in the urban areas instead of having to chase around the rural areas for signatures. And in the urban counties, special events like the rib cook-off provide many people in one place at a time for signature collectors to approach.

The price paid for signatures is usually around a dollar a signature, though it can go higher. National Petition president LeeAlbright told one reporter in 1999 that, depending on the difficulty of the issue and the availablity of workers, the bounty ranges between $1 and $1.50.

National Petition Management is generally regarded as a conservative firm. It has been involved in getting anti-gay and anti-affirmative action measures on the ballot in several jurisdictions.

Of particular interest in Nevada is a 2002 ballot measure in Michigan. National Petition was hired by the healthcare lobby to get a measure on the ballot that, if enacted, would have taken tobacco settlement money away from 50,000 students for scholarships and given the money to health care. Nevada has a similar scholarship progam. The Michigan measure was defeated.

Many Nevada leaders, particularly conservatives, are becoming increasingly concerned about the sales pitches used by signature gatherers. Many of those pitches have little relationship to the actual content of the ballot measures. GOP Sens. Barbara Cegavske and Dennis Nolan of Clark County have filed bill draft requests for legislation to try to address the problem of misleading pitches.