Why your signature is worth so much this election season

Jul 6, 2016

The California ballot will be crowded this November. Last week, the Secretary of State put out a list of the official initiatives –- all 17 of them. We’ll be voting on whether the state should legalize marijuana, lower the cost of pharmaceuticals, repeal the death penalty, require condoms in porn, and countless others. And the large number of measures makes the process a lot more expensive. Here’s why.

There will be almost twice as many initiatives on the ballot this year than in the last presidential election, in 2012. Part of the reason for this increase is because the bar to qualify is lower. The number of signatures you need to get your measure on the ballot is based on five percent of the number of people who voted in the last governor's race. So, fewer votes means fewer signatures.

“Because Jerry Brown was a shoe-in for reelection, and no one voted. There were historically low numbers, so everybody looked around and thought ‘Oh my God historically low,’ we can all qualify, says Quintin Mecke, the campaign manager for the Justice that Works Act an organization that wants to repeal the death penalty. This year they only needed around 365,000 signatures to qualify, compared to over 500,000 in 2012.

“We looked at the numbers, did some polls, the numbers came back favorably, and we did some work with a political consultant and thought this seems like a great opportunity to do this,” Mecke says.

Less is more

But, of course because the numbers were so low, everyone else saw that same opportunity. Interest groups flooded the market with petitions. And that created a weird paradox –– even though they needed fewer signatures, each one cost a lot more to get.

“It sounds as if it’s a volunteer process, right. everyone’s out there on the streets, and they’re fanning out across the state ... it’s actually not how the process works at all,” Mecke says.

A signature gathering industry

Most signature gathering is organized by a handful of firms that campaigns can hire, and they bring in independent contractors from all over the country who spread out across the state and in front of Trader Joe’s, or at the farmer’s market and ask you if you’re a registered voter. Each time they get someone to sign, they get paid. Signature gathering in California has become an industry, but it didn’t start out this way.

Jack Citrin teaches American politics at UC Berkeley,  and specifically looks at the ballot initiative process. He says the initiative process is essentially one element of direct democracy, which started in the early 20th century as part of the progressive movement.

“It enabled voters to directly pass laws, to directly amend the constitution, and to directly recall elected officials,” Citrin says.

The initiative process began as a grassroots effort where ordinary people who had an idea to fix a problem would collect enough signatures to qualify something for the ballot. Even when campaigns started paying for signature gathering in the late 70s and 80s they didn’t pay too much –– $0.25, $0.50 cents, a then it crept up to $1.00, $1.50.

But as California’s population grew and more people voted in elections, campaigns needed to collect more and more signatures. At some point, paying other people to do it was just more efficient.

“It’s in some ways a more economical thing, it’s pretty hard to round up armies of people who are enthusiastic, and committed and who will go door to door and do this stuff,” Citrin says.

Those people you’ve been seeing in front of Trader Joe’s this year are getting $4.00 to $7.00 a signature. It’s unprecedented.

“If you have to get 800,000 [signatures] at $4.00 a signature, that’s 3 million dollars right there to start,” Citrin says.

Plus, most campaigns collect way more signatures than they’ll ultimately need because a lot of the signatures you collect aren’t qualified.

People may put down their old address, or aren’t registered to vote. Quintin Mecke from the Death Penalty campaign says they got close to twice as many signatures as they needed.

“Everyone has different math, so technically we need certified 365,000, and by our estimates we thought the safest number would be to submit around 600,000.

Paying for your attention

Campaigns aren’t just paying for attention from the signature - gathering firms. They’re also paying for attention of those Trader Joe’s shoppers. Typically, firms are responsible for a handful of initiatives, that they’re all promoting at the same time. The more you pay, the closer to the top of the stack you get.

“So the first question they ask is not, ‘do you support fair wages. It’s Do you want to end the death penalty and so that’s where the pricing process comes in.

Mecke says there is a thing called ‘petition fatigue’ and you don’t want your measure to be explained second or third..or fourth, or fifth. And if your measure sounds boring or complex, you may have to pay even more to get the signature gatherers to give it more attention. The Justice That works Act spent a lot of time crafting a short summary of their measure and turned in their signatures to the Secretary of State at the end of April.  

“I mean we initially we probably spent twice that we were going spent on the signatures, so we didn't expect this would happen. I'm not sure any of the people did.”

They spent close to $3.5 million.  And if that seems like a lot - it’s nowhere near what’s coming next for Mecke –– the actual campaigning. And this year there’s competing measure on the ballot - one that streamlines the death penalty.

“We estimate we need to raise probably an additional $10 million for a successful campaign,” Mecke says.