Circulators, Take a Bow

They are a wretched class of Californians. They work the streets, they are paid per piece, they are chased off people’s property, and they are routinely accused of fraud and price gouging and worse.

But California’s petition circulators are completing one of the most difficult, high-pressure signature gathering seasons in the history of the state – and they may deserve some credit for that.

It’s never been so hard to gather signatures.

Specifically, there are fewer and fewer public spaces where circulators can find big crowds of voters. The shift to on-line retailing brings fewer people out to the stores and malls where circulators have traditionally done business. (Even groceries can now be ordered on-line). And many retailers chase circulators off. Even the U.S. post office won’t accommodate them. Many circulators have been reduced to chasing after people in parking lots.

In spite of this, they’ve secured signatures for several initiatives – relatively cheaply and with shocking speed.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s compromise tax-hike measure is likely to qualify, even though it had just a few weeks on the street.

Despite predictions by many (including yours truly) that the governor would have to pay big bucks to make his numbers, the per-signature price on the street has held steady at $3.

The circulators qualified most of the measures while being paid relatively low rates – less than $1 per signature for measures on the death penalty and three strikes.

There have been no reports of fraud, which shouldn’t surprise us. Petition fraud has existed mostly in the minds of those seeking to restrict the process. Petition companies have gotten better about checking, imposing financial penalties for circulators with lots of invalid signatures. (If we wanted to deter fraud, on-line gathering and an electronic system that sends a receipt to voters once they signed would be the best way of checking).

Circulators, should take a bow. But they won’t. They’ve gotta rush off to do local measures, or maybe try something out of state. (Arizona, perhaps?).

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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