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Counting Signatures: San Diego Wasting Taxpayer Money with Unsophisticated Methods

by Jeff Powers, published

San Diego, CA - Backers of the Citizens’ Plan for Tourism Reform, now Measure D, and taxpayers are enduring a wasteful and unnecessary process.

It’s no secret the initiative is going to qualify for the November ballot, but if the City of San Diego applied either the Los Angeles or San Francisco formulas to signature counting, the Citizens’ Plan would project to over 77,000 signatures, well over the threshold necessary, and avoid the totally unnecessary cost of counting every signature.

Unlike Los Angeles and San Francisco, also charter cities, San Diego uses the state method for signature counting, making it harder to qualify an initiative here than in other charter cities in the state.

The state method is a formula created by a professor that penalizes statewide initiatives for duplicate signatures. Indeed the penalty is steep. For every duplicate, a thousand signatures are thrown out. The reason for this is pretty straight forward, it can be hard to guard against the possibility that one of 58 counties in a California petition could oversample and skew the result.

But why apply a formula designed for 58 counties when you have a local initiative?

Why does the City of San Diego continue to use an arguably unsophisticated counting method for local initiatives?

The author of the Citizens’ Plan, Cory Briggs, told IVN San Diego, “If they know the exact number of duplicate signatures and that number is extremely small, as in our particular case, why is the city penalizing us more than a thousand times for each signature?” Briggs continued, “That seems to be a tremendous interference with the public’s constitutional right to circulate petitions.”

And very expensive for all parties involved, especially taxpayers. A charter amendment in a 2011 school board petition that went to a full count, like the Citizens’ Plan (Measure D), cost taxpayers $309,000. The costs are also steep for those collecting signatures, as they must inflate the number collected to account for the possibility of any duplicates.

This is the reason Los Angeles and San Francisco don’t rely on the state formula for local initiatives. Horacio Arroyo, project coordinator with the office of the Los Angeles City Clerk told IVN San Diego,“We both do random sampling, but the threshold and penalties are different.”

The threshold in Los Angeles is 5% and they do not penalize for duplicate signatures. Neither does San Francisco as they view the statewide formula incompatible with local initiatives.

Denise Jenkins is an elections analyst with the San Diego City Clerk’s office.  She told IVN San Diego, “The City of San Diego follows the election code. We follow the code of the Secretary of State.” Jenkins said the city has had no conversations to alter or change the policy.

Her response troubled Briggs who said, “The penalty formula is not in the Elections Code.  It’s only in the regulations applicable to the Secretary of State. Charter cities get to adopt their own set of rules, and nothing in San Diego requires it to use the state’s penalty formula.”

The Citizens’ Plan for Tourism Reform collected 101,897 signatures, way more than the 66,447 required to be certified. But because San Diego uses the state’s penalty formula to determine the initiative’s viability, a razor-thin margin was created. Indeed, if the Citizens’ Plan had only four more duplicate signatures it would have been thrown out because of the penalties. Four fewer duplicates and the initiative would have been certified without a recount.

For local taxpayers all this does is create more cost. The additional counts and hours associated with petition observation all add up to potentially over a quarter million dollars of taxpayer waste for the Citizens' Plan initiative alone.

Disclaimer: Jeff Powers worked as a spokesman for the Citizens' Plan for Tourism Reform

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