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California Bill Would Limit the Use of Paid Signature Gatherers

by Lucas Eaves, published

Paid Signature Gatherers

Last week, the California Assembly Elections Committee passed a bill that would create new regulations limiting the use of paid signature gatherers to qualify a ballot initiative.

AB-857, sponsored by Assemblymember Paul Fong (D-Cupertino), would amend the process by which signatures needed to qualify an initiative for the ballot are collected.

"This bill would require at least 20% of the signatures on a petition for an initiative  measure to be submitted on a petition or petition section that was circulated by a person who does not receive money or other valuable consideration for the specific purpose of soliciting signatures of electors" 

Assemblymember Fong describes the bill as an attempt to protect California's direct democracy from "financed special interest groups" that use the initiative process to shape the state's policies. The stated purpose of the 20 percent requirement is to ensure that an initiative has true grassroots support, which was the rationale behind the creation of the initiative process at the beginning of the 20th century.

The bill would also require paid signature gatherers to register with the secretary of state as well as participate in a training program organized by the state. Lastly, it would require any petition to include a specific disclosure of who is paying for the petition.

If limiting the power of special interests is an intended goal, the bill does not achieve it.

Last year, proposition 32 was designed to limit the influence of all special interests by banning "deductions by corporations, unions, and government of employees’ wages to be used for politics." Despite a broad theoretical application, the initiative would have, in practice, resulted in limiting political contributions from labor unions, while leaving corporate funding untouched because most corporations do not use payroll deductions for political giving.

Bill AB 857 would create a similar inequity, but in the opposite direction. The 20 percent requirement would be applicable to everybody, but in practice, this would give an upper hand to Democratic causes. This is because Democrats can tap into the massive labor unions volunteer base to collect signatures.

Republicans and other interest groups traditionally viewed as representing the corporate world rely more on paid signature gatherers because they don't have a similar base of volunteers to utilize for such time-intensive tasks. While appearing to limit the power of special interests in general, the bill would really just create a situation where one "side of the aisle" has a strong competitive advantage over the other.

According to Richard Winger, the 20 percent requirement could be unconstitutional under the Supreme Court decision, Meyer v. Grant. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that a Colorado ban on the use of paid signature gatherers restricts "the right to engage in political speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments."

This bill is in the primary stages of the legislative process.

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