Cash For Signatures: Hired Petition Drives Raking in Dough

PHOTO: A woman, right, collects a signature during a petition in Columbus, Ohio, in this Sept. 9, 2011 file photo.Terry Gilliam/AP Photo
A woman, right, collects a signature during a petition in Columbus, Ohio, in this Sept. 9, 2011 file photo.

It's one of the dirty little secrets of democracy.

Those clipboard-toting "volunteers" outside mini malls and grocery stores hunting down signatures to get a referendum on the ballot or a law passed often are not volunteers at all.

Instead, they are hired guns, paid a bounty for every John Hancock they can gather -- and in some places, business is booming.

In California, more than a dozen petition drives are under way to get referendums on the November ballot, throwing a spotlight on the little-known practice.

Organizations created by Gov. Jerry Brown and the state teachers union are forking over $3 per signature to place a tax initiative on the November ballot -- and there are estimates the cost could leap to $6 per name as the May deadline for submitting the petitions nears.

"There's a lot of competition out there," signature-gatherer Alberto Richard told KABC-TV in Los Angeles. "On some days when I work, I can see up to five or six different petitioners right out here with us."

Around the country, organizations circulating petitions almost always portray the pages and pages of names they gather as evidence of a grass-roots movement rising up to support their cause.

What they routinely fail to disclose is that the armies of people circulating their petitions usually are just soldiers of fortune pocketing a payment for every person they can get to sign on.

"The whole idea that this is citizen democracy, grass roots democracy, is a … charade," said David McCuan, an associate professor at Sonoma State University in California who studies referendums and other forms of initiative politics.

The best petition-gatherers can make close to six figures a year, although most earn far less, McCuan said. "The real money, the big money, is made by the petition-management firms."

Some petition-gatherers in California travel from town to town for signatures; others will stake out a neighborhood and jealously guard their turf against anyone else trying to circulate petitions there.

"What can happen? You can get your tires get slashed," McCuan said.

In effect, the ballot-initiative process, touted around the country as a way for ordinary citizens to make their voices heard, actually is just another side of "pay to play" culture in politics, McCuan said.

It has been this way, more or less, since the turn of the last century, he said.

"In Oregon, they were paying five cents a signature, which was a lot of money back then. The idea of paying is not new. The idea of 'pay to play' is not new," he said. What's new is the amount of money involved, he said.

Petitioning also has become a huge enterprise inn Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington state, places where it is relatively easy to put questions on the ballot. But businesses, unions and interest groups routinely pay for petition signatures everywhere, McCuan said.

At least 13 states have tried to outlaw or limit paying for signatures, but federal courts have struck down these bans in five states as violations of the First Amendment, according to the non-profit group Citizens in Charge.

In California, the law requires the signatures of 700,000 registered voters by early May to place an initiative on the statewide ballot in November. It can cost at least $2 million to $3 million to fund a successful petition drive, requiring the largess of a special-interest group or a millionaire benefactor.

"This is not unique to California. We just do it bigger and badder than everyone else," McCuan said.