California Petition Circulators Need More Room

Chris Haston/NBC

Over the last decade, one focus of my reporting has been monitoring the business of gathering signatures on ballot initiatives.

The biggest change over the past 10 years has nothing to do with the things you usually hear about petition circulators -- how much they're paid or how honest they are.

The biggest change has to do with space.

There are simply fewer and fewer public places where circulators can operate without being harassed or challenged.

Traditionally, circulators have gathered signatures outside places where large numbers of people gather, which in California has meant shopping centers. But that's been changing.

Various retail chains that once welcomed, or at least tolerated, circulators have taken legal steps to block them.

Even the post office bars gatherers.

Changes in the design of malls also have hurt; traditional malls, which had just a few entrances, had to permit gatherers because of court decisions that found malls to be the equivalent of town squares.

But new style shopping centers, often designed to resemble town squares, have maintained that those court decisions don't apply to them.

Seasoned circulators I talk with estimate there are fewer than 100 places in all of California where they can gather signatures freely.

The result is that many circulators have to be more aggressive, in relations both with the voters they approach and with retail stores that seek to block them.

So it should be no surprise that circulators are preparing to protest against Safeway stores (which include Vons) this week because the grocery store chain is taking steps to restrict signature gathering outside the stores.

Critics of the initiative process, particularly those on the left, have recently sought to target signature gatherers with legislation that would change their pay and unfounded claims that they perpetrate identity theft against voters.

The gatherers I talk to now feel as though they are under siege, and they are prepared to fight for their reputations and livelihoods.

Expect to see the circulators themselves take a higher profile and remind Californians that the First Amendment guarantees the right to petition your government, and that exercising that right requires space.

The initiative process needs reform in California.

Circulators should accept some changes in the way they do business -- particularly anything that gives voters more time to deliberate before they sign and more confidence that they signed what they thought they signed.

But initiative "reform" shouldn't consist entirely of measures that restrict circulators.

It should open up the process in ways that make life easier for voters and circulators.

One way to do that is to make clear that circulators have a right to operate more freely in more places.


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