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California Elections Are A Bonanza For Signature-Gatherers

Petition signature gatherer Peter Keyes, right, discusses a petition to legalize marijuana, in Sacramento, April 23, 2016.
Associated Press
Petition signature gatherer Peter Keyes, right, discusses a petition to legalize marijuana, in Sacramento, April 23, 2016.

California Elections Are A Bonanza For Signature-Gatherers
California Elections Are A Bonanza For Signature-Gatherers GUEST: Bob Glaser, political strategist, The La Jolla Group

This is been a booming election season for signature gatherers. Multiple state and local initiatives have kept him busy and posted the price for each signature. People who gather signatures outside the supermarket are not volunteers, they are professionals who travel around the state and even the country. Earlier I spoke with Bob Geiser -- Glasser, his most recent projects brings sick -- signature initiatives. You've been in business for more than 30 years, you've gone out, you've collected signatures from time to time. What drew you to this industry? I was working with wind shank -- Lynn and we headed initiative that was backed by the Sierra Club and the Lake of conservation voters it was to regulate the growth and North San Diego and create an Urban Reserve. We could not get the city Council interested and we decided to do an initiative. I started because I helped organize that group and we went forward. Back then we paid $0.25 per signature. Things have changed. Signature gatherers are our independent contractors and nowadays, I saw job that said they could earn between 500 that said they could earn between $515 and $1500 a day. Is that true? It's true. Right now it's definitely true, it's not all of the time. They can be paid up to $15 a signature. When you have that many petitions out, if you have one voter who stops and signs three or four petitions, you might make 30 $30 or $40 in a stop. If you have 7500 people stop each day, if you are putting in a full day, you can start doing the math and it adds up to a lot of money. What determines the value of a signature? It's very laissez-faire capitalism. There are a number of great circulators, who get high numbers with good validity. They will actually move from state to state, when they are in our area working on petitions, the number of petitions on the street and the time left in order to qualify that petition for the ballot will cause a rise in price from some petitions that want to get to the top of the list. We of heard that the Chargers are paying $12 per signature. Where do you find people who want to do this? For the most part, there are people that have been doing it as their primary occupation. Some people work with me have been turning signatures and for 25 or 30 years. Is it hard work? It's not hard work in one sense, you are just talking to people in front of a store. It is hard in that, let's say I get five people in an hour to stop and sign three or four petitions and I am making 50 or $60 an hour. To get those five or six people to stop and sign multiple petitions I might have to be rejected 100 times. There are people that take the rejection very personally. They burn out very quickly. There are other people that realize it's just a numbers game. How are signature gatherers trained? It's called an orientation. We tell them what their rights are, we tell them that they are in business as an independent contractor, they are paid at a piece rate, they have to produce validity, meaning we expect seven or eight signatures out of 10 to be valid signatures. We are their client, they sell them to us. They have to have the type of personality to get out there and do it. There's not a lot more to it than that. You are a small business and like any small business, if you work 10 hours or 12 hours a day you are successful. We of heard allegations misleading voters. How do you keep that from happening? We give them scripts that the client would like them to use for their petitions. These are the high points of our petition, use those. They know that jobs are always popular, protecting things, stopping offshore oil, protecting redwoods, those are always popular. If those relate to the issue, they want to use slug lines like that. You have to talk very quickly to the voter walking by. You reduce it to a quick pitch. Sometimes, they start to drift off script. We find out and we get back to them. What are some of the greatest excuses you've heard from shoppers who don't want to give you the time? One that happens frequently is funny, we will have a petition and it's the very first day, it was just released, we gave them two people in the morning, they go out, hello would you like to sign this to save the redwoods? IRD signed it. -- I already signed it, and they walk by, is what they say. One-story, I trained people to always talk to everybody. I was working with an intern from San Diego State who is learning the petitioning product -- process. A guy pulls up on his motorcycle and stops at the front door, the gal on the back ran into the store very fast. I thought I would talk to them. I said hello, are you registered to vote? He looked at me and glared and said they won't let me. Which is true, when you are on patrol you can't register to vote. I just walked away, nicely. Why do you keep doing this? I do it for a number of reasons. I'm a general political consultant. This is just one of the many things that we do. In addition to it, I like the public access. I like voters being able to step up and say we want to vote. Some of them are backed by corporations, that's true. A lot of them are backed by groups that are pulling together money that they have sometimes they will do them with volunteers. I've been speaking with Bob Glaser, he works with the La Jolla group. Thank you so much. Thank you.

Steve Kriston is accustomed to insults from shoppers. Some tell him to get a job when he solicits signatures to qualify measures for California's ballot.

This is my job, he responds.


It's a banner year for paid signature-gatherers like Kriston, who came to San Diego after three months working in Orlando, Florida, on state ballot measures there. He is weighing offers to move to Missouri and Minnesota after California's season ends. The Hungarian immigrant now makes more than the $1,200 to $1,500 a week he earned as a truck driver.

In California, always a hotbed for voter initiatives, sponsors are paying up to $5.50 a signature, well above the $1 to $3 in previous statewide elections.

RELATED: A San Diego Primary Primer And A Proposal To Change The City Voting Process

"No one has ever seen prices anywhere in this ballpark," said Steven Maviglio, a longtime political consultant in California.

The threshold for questions to qualify is set by the turnout in the prior election. It was a record low in 2014, so the number of signatures of registered voters needed to place a question on the November ballot is 365,880, which is 28 percent lower, prompting more proposals.


Another factor is a 2011 state law requiring all initiatives except those written by the Legislature go to voters in November, giving advocacy groups only one shot each cycle, rather than the two they had when questions also could be on the primary ballot.

"It's quite simple supply and demand," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. "The rival initiatives start getting into a bidding war for the services of these signature-gatherers."

The best can command airfare and other travel expenses be covered as they move from state to state.

The bonanza has fueled criticism that only the wealthiest can hope to get on California's ballot, putting what was intended as a vehicle for democracy when launched in 1911 further out of reach for ordinary citizens. Even some who benefit think it is bad for business if only the deepest pockets can afford to pay for signatures.

Ron Tomczak, whose Victory Consultants Inc. is a major signature-gathering firm in the San Diego area, said consolidating measures in November was a huge mistake. The change was intended to limit referendums to higher-turnout general elections, but Tomczak says it requires more money to rise above a more crowded field.

"Unfortunately, they may say this is the voting season that killed the golden goose," Tomczak said.

In March, backers of a proposed measure to shift $8 billion in high-speed rail bonds to water projects ended their campaign to get on the ballot, citing the cost of gathering signatures. In late April, investor Charles Munger's measure to stop the Legislature from passing bills unless they are published for 72 hours was commanding $5.50 a signature, as was one backed by many district attorneys to accelerate appeals by death row inmates.

Gov. Jerry Brown's measure to make it easier to parole nonviolent offenders was paying $5, as was a proposed cigarette tax increase. On the lower end, a measure to allow recreational use of marijuana was paying $2.

Several factors explain price variations. Groups that start later or back measures that are more complicated or less popular may need to pay more. Wealthy donors may raise offers simply to finish the job quickly.

A repeal of the death penalty backed by MASH actor Mike Farrell, which started paying $1.50 each and ended around $5.30, spent about $3.5 million gathering signatures, said deputy campaign manager Quintin Mecke. That figure accounts for overhead fees and hundreds of thousands of signatures above the threshold to cushion against any that are deemed invalid.

Eight measures are positioned to appear on the November ballot, including a proposed repeal of a ban on single-use plastic bags. The last day to qualify is June 30 but proponents must allow time to verify signatures, effectively ending the collection season by late May.

Organizers are paid only for valid signatures, and many campaigns figure at least 25 percent will be tossed out. People may have signed twice, they may be ineligible to vote, or they may be registered in a different county than where they signed.

Many signature-gatherers carry a stack of petitions, with the ones on top often paying the most. Popular spots to solicit go to the first who claim then, which is why Kriston says positions outside Wal-Marts are taken as early as 4 a.m.

The most successful collectors have outgoing but not overbearing personalities. Thick skin is required.

Kriston hits Wal-Marts in the morning, when homemakers aren't rushing to prepare dinner. He targets college campuses and farmer's markets, looking for people who are less hurried. He does better in small towns, where people are more likely to stop.

He sometimes lures people with voter registration forms — which don't pay — then asks them to sign a ballot proposal. It takes him about two weeks to become familiar enough with a measure to answer detailed questions.

He tells doubters that their signatures will allow for robust debate of an issue that voters will ultimately decide.

"If they don't make it on the ballot, politicians love it," Kriston tells them. "They make the decisions for us. It's important to keep the voting power with us, not to give it to the politicians."