Governor Brown Should Sign Law to Reform Ballot Measures

PhotobucketJustine knows her stuff on initiatives, and SB 168, which would ban per-signature payments, is a very important reform. – Brian

By Justine Sarver

Executive Director, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center

With the stroke of a pen, Governor Brown can start fixing California’s broken ballot-measure system this week.

A bill that would ban paying per-signature “bounty” payments to petition signature-gatherers – Sen. Ellen Corbett’s SB 168, which my organization is sponsoring – is on the Governor’s desk now. The bill is good for California and I urge the governor to sign it.

Governor Brown should sign SB 168 because bounty payments are a proven incentive for fraud. When each signature on a petition is worth anywhere from $1 to $5 dollars, too many signature gatherers are tempted to fake signatures or deceive voters about what they’re signing. Some will even bribe homeless people on Skid Row with Snickers bars to get a few extra signatures.  Because most initiatives qualify for the ballot based on a random sampling of signature validity rather than a full check of each one, there’s no way to know how many faked or coerced signatures help qualify measures for the ballot.

The bill will also help give all groups equal access to the ballot. Right now, California has direct democracy for the highest bidders, rather than what Gov. Hiram Johnson intended – direct democracy that gives the people a powerful check on corporations and the government.  Texas oil companies and PG&E can afford to pay massive bounties to qualify measures for the ballot, while it is far rarer for truly populist efforts to be able to do the same.

There are other, less obvious reasons the governor, a known reformer and former Secretary of State, should sign this bill:

  • It’s good for workers. Right now, signature gatherers are classified as independent contractors, rather than employees. Under SB 168, they would work as employees of petition-management firms, paid a living wage.  If they fell ill, they could get sick days. If they were hurt on the job, they would be covered by workers’ compensation insurance. Since the initiative industry is year-round in California, this just makes sense.
  • It can only help the state budget. Petition-management firms don’t pay taxes on independent contractors. And many signature gatherers travel from state to state, initiative campaign to initiative campaign. It’s anyone’s guess how many of them follow the law and pay income taxes to the state of California before moving on to the next gig. If signature gatherers become salaried employees, they will no longer contributing to the tax gap.
  • It doesn’t have to be more expensive. In search of facts about what it would cost to qualify an initiative under SB 168, my organization had a non-bounty signature-gathering firm develop budgets for qualifying a measure in 2010.  While paying its employees an average of $10.50 an hour, the firm said it would cost about $1.2 million to qualify a ballot measure changing state statures. Qualifying a measure that would change the state constitution (which requires significantly more signatures) would cost up to $2.2 million.  By comparison, it cost $2.6 million last year to qualify Proposition 25, which changed the state constitution. Of course, any grassroots organization, whether it be a taxpayers association or an environmental group, could drive down qualification costs significantly by using volunteers to collect signatures as well.
  • SB 168 is good for direct democracy. It is good for Californians. And it deserves Governor Brown’s signature.

    The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center is the progressive community’s only organization focused solely on ballot measures. In conjunction with national and state partners, BISC works to reform ballot-measure laws and support ballot measures that advance social and economic justice.

    13 thoughts on “Governor Brown Should Sign Law to Reform Ballot Measures”

    1. Whatever you think about the ballot initiative system, changing how circulators are paid does not change anything.

      Fraud is a non-factor in petitioning – good companies only pay circulators after validating their signatures. You’re paid for the good ones only. No incentive for fraud. The suggestion that measures make the ballot on the strength of fraud is ridiculous – “we don’t know” how many because it’s zero.

      Requiring payment by the hour rather than rewarding circulators who produce well according to their work simply raises the cost for petition sponsors (putting aside the one estimate in this post) and actually increases job insecurity for petition workers. If you can’t pay for production then people get fired if they don’t seem to be “productive enough” to justify the hourly rate. Pay by signature allows people to be paid for whatever work they produce, therefore more people can be hired and earn something.

      Suffice it to say that the actual purposes behind bills like this can’t be to really reform initiatives, make them more “grassroots” in nature or to protect petition workers. This is a solution in search of a problem, check it.

    2. Is there time to send a blast to get people to sign a letter to Brown? Fix California ( would be happy to do that ASAP.

    3. that seems to be the root of the problem. if it were all volunteer, an issue would have to be really burning popular in the electorate to get on the ballot. as it should be.

    4. People desperate for money and they fake your signature for the most unpopular ballot measures. You might like to sign Amazon’s repeal measure, then the stupid circulator commits fraud to add your name to the repeal SB 48 petition that you do not want to sign.

      If I want to sign stuff I am just going to print my own petitions and mail them on my own.  

    5. to this issue is exactly what caligal said, eliminate paid signature gathering altogether. I’m sorry but there are some things in public discourse that do not need to have a profit motive behind them.

    6. How about that Joe Mathews idea where initiatives first go to the legislature who can counter-propose and then we can vote.

      And the auto-Sunset provision?

      There’s a foundation somewhere that has been floating some interesting reform ideas, beyond the Crackup duo. I forget it’s name though.

    7. I was recently approached to sign the amazon tax referendum.

      I declined, pointing out that since I’m moving out of state at the end of the month (husband is going to grad school in NYC), and will reregister as soon as I move, by the time the petitions are turned in, my signature will be invalid.

      The collector told me this doesn’t matter and I should sign anyway because otherwise California will tax the internet into oblivion.

      I declined again.

    8. I don’t agree w/ Jerry much but he cited the right reasons for vetoing SB 168.

      Here’s his veto message:

      Key points:

      – it doesn’t make sense to “create a system that makes productivity goals a crime”

      – eliminating per-signature payment drives up costs and winds up “further favoring the wealthiest interests”

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