The California Legislature has passed what would be a major change to the state’s initiative process.
A measure on its way to Gov. Jerry Brown would ban paying initiative signature-gatherers for each voter signature they collect.
Campaigns to qualify ballot measures in California typically pay freelancers a dollar or more for each of the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to make the ballot.
Democratic state Sen. Henry Stern argued per-signature payments incentivize signature-gatherers to use misleading or underhanded tactics to get pen on paper.
“This practice degrades the integrity of our direct democracy and our initiative process, because the behavior is based on the bounty hunter’s bottom-line,” Stern said during debate on the bill.
The National Conference of State Legislatures lists six states that have banned per-signature payments: Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming.
The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down state laws that banned paid signature-gathering, but not restrictions on the form of those payments. Lower courts have upheld some state laws, but ruled against similar measures in Ohio, Washington and Mississippi, according to an analysis of the California bill by legislative staff.
“It is unclear whether this bill, if enacted, would be upheld in a court challenge,” the analysis says.
Opponents of the measure, including Republican lawmakers, argued it would hike the already high costs of qualifying an initiative. It typically requires millions of dollars.
“You get paid whether you get two signatures or whether you get 50 signatures,” Republican strategist Beth Miller said, when asked to analyze the bill’s effect. “So just from an economic standpoint, it looks like it would make it more expensive to qualify a measure.”
Brown, who has backed several ballot measures during his terms in office, vetoed a similar measure in 2011, under this rationale: “It doesn’t seem very practical to me to create a system that makes productivity goals a crime. Eliminating this option will drive up the cost of circulating ballot measures, thereby further favoring the wealthiest interests.”
If Brown does sign this measure, it could especially affect business groups, which rely more heavily on paid freelancers to gather signatures than labor unions — which often use their own members.
Carl Towe, who runs a signature-gathering company, downplayed its effect, mentioning similar measures in other states, such as Oregon.
“It does make more paperwork, but I can’t see, according to the other states, it didn’t really change nothing,” Towe said.
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