Today’s Chronicle had a report that signature gatherers for Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s pension reform measure were “caught on camera” saying things to voters that were “misleading.” After checking out, all I can say is that if anyone thinks they found a smoking gun, they may not be aware of a) how words can be twisted and b) how paid signature gathering works.
First, the words: many canvassers in the video were saying things like “if you want to prevent night time parking meters sign this petition.” It is very correct that the petition says nothing about it, but at the same time, it would be almost impossible to prosecute. That’s because if city pensions begin to dominate city spending, why yes, one could reasonably infer that “nighttime parking meters (WTF?) could in fact be a response to said financial crisis.
So could a tax on unicorn horns. You see where this is going.
Also, those that point the finger should be darn sure none of their folks pulled any similar weasel word stunts too – these things can backfire spectacularly if you’re not on solid ground.
I avoid signing petitions at all costs, unless it is for something that I’ve heard of that is sponsored by people I trust. I think people in San Francisco would be doing themselves a favor by not signing these things based on some emotional chatter they get from some fool collecting signatures. It sucks, because many good things are put on the ballot this way, but I think we need to thin the herd on ballot measures for a while.
Second, the methods. When the press talks about paid signature gatherers, they’ll usually do their research and find out how much they’re paying per signature. In California it can be as high as $6 a signature. The question is – did the hippie in front of Safeway who asked you to sign a petition get $6 for your signature? Probably not.
Campaigns usually hire a professional firm to gather signatures for a ballot measure (local or state). That company will then hire contract workers who then go out and get the signatures. However, these sub-contractors don’t simply go out with a stack of clipboards and start earning $6 per signature. Instead, they go out and hire another series of sub-contractors, and pay them a percentage of the $6. In some cases those sub contractors might even hire another level of folks, but that is rare.
Let’s make it simpler: Campaign Signature Company “A” hires contractor “Elvis” to get signatures at $6 each. “Elvis” then hires a crew of 10 people to get signatures, but pays them only $3 each. This means that 10 people are being managed by “Elvis” bringing in signatures, who is getting $3 each and isn’t actually out there doing anything – he is instead managing a crew of 10. Any one of those could take a dollar less and sub out the work themselves too, if they wanted. In the end, “Elvis” is going to make more money farming out the work to 10 people, each armed with 4 clipboards a piece, than he ever would alone getting the full $6.
Most of the people who do this are pros who follow the action wherever it goes, similar to those who once followed the Grateful Dead back in the day. They may or may not be from the jurisdiction and in almost all cases are simply trying to play a numbers game, racking up as many signatures as they can. Needless to say, these aren’t people who know or care much about what the petition is for, so it’s easy to see where the incentive is to make up stuff just to get people’s signatures.
A bill to regulate the signature mills made its way through the state Senate. Predictably it was all on party-line votes – Democrats wanted it regulated to prevent fraud, while Republicans want to ensure that money buys access to the ballot.
One thing you can do right away is if approached to sign something is to ask if they are paid or not. Under the law, they have to tell you and it must be printed on the petition.
Either way, take the time to read the fine print before you sign. Just because something is called “The Kittens Puppies and Rainbows Initiative to Save The Children” doesn’t mean it’s so.
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