Ban paid signature gatherers

Most post-election attention has focused on Proposition 8, and understandably so. But while California’s public image as a bastion of individual rights is at stake with Prop. 8, the long-term future of our state’s ability to succeed is far more closely tied to Proposition 11. With a narrow victory, Prop. 11 opened the door for serious government reform.

The proposition sets up a nonpartisan commission that will oversee California’s next redistricting. The goal is to create districts that are more closely aligned with city and county borders, as well as natural geography, instead of the gerrymandered jigsaws that have created generations of “safe” seats. Ultimately, without districts arranged so that they “belong” to one party or the other, citizens may be able to choose from public servants with a yen toward consensus-building and sensible governing.

If we can make it work, it will be a fantastic start. But it’s just the beginning of what California needs to become a state that can responsibly and reasonably govern itself. We also need to reform the initiative process: Restore the power of grassroots democracy by banning the use of paid signature gatherers for initiative and referendum petitions.

The use of paid signature gatherers has made ballot initiatives more attractive to deep-pocket lobbies than the legislative process itself. In at least one case—the thrice-defeated initiative to require parental notification for abortion—the same small group of individuals continue to fund signature-gathering campaigns on an issue that obviously lacks broad-based citizen support.

The constitutional right of initiative and referendum was never intended to be used as an end run around the legislative process. It was certainly not meant as a way for special-interest groups to write their own laws, for the governor to avoid working with the Legislature or for lobbies to budget by ballot.

Instead of working through legislators and state officials, deep-pocketed groups and individuals can simply whip out a checkbook and pay a signature-gathering firm, thus avoiding the public discussion and hearings that lawmaking ought to require. Unhappy interest groups have turned the ballot into a primary budgeting tool, to the detriment of California’s purse.

Further, overuse of the initiative process puts the voters in the position of needing expertise on all sorts of matters: air-pollution regulation, probationary periods for teachers, prescription drugs, criminal sentencing, tribal gaming and stem-cell research, to name just a handful. It’s overwhelming, and certainly contributes to voter disaffection.

This is not working. Too many initiatives, often with confusing language, overwhelm the electorate. Even political junkies have a hard time keeping up. High-profile issues, like this year’s Prop. 8 battle, take attention away from other substantive issues. What’s more, the amount of money involved in the initiative battles could jump-start the economy in a variety of ways if used wisely, and we all know that large sums of money create opportunities for bad behavior.

In order to return the initiative process to its rightful place as a last resort when the Legislature and the governor are ignoring their constituents, we strongly urge a ban on paid signature gatherers.