California considers initiative tweaks that would favor Dems

October 2, 2013
California Gov. Jerry Brown talks to reporters (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
California Gov. Jerry Brown talks to reporters (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

California Gov. Jerry Brown has about a week and a half to decide whether to sign or veto legislation that would put substantial burdens on groups aiming to collect signatures for ballot initiatives, while exempting unions from the stringent new rules.

The measure, Assembly Bill 857, would require 10 percent of signatures for any given ballot initiative to be collected by volunteers, rather than by paid signature gatherers. The number of signatures supporters need to turn in is based on the number of votes in the last gubernatorial election; that means groups would have to rely on volunteers to gather a little more than 50,000 of the 504,760 valid signatures required to get an initiative on the ballot.

But the measure would allow employees or members of nonprofit organizations to be considered volunteers. That provision, the bill’s opponents say, allows unions to count signatures collected by their members as volunteer-collected, giving labor organizations an advantage in qualifying ballot measures.

Despite the half a million signatures required to get on the ballot, California has a long history with the initiative process. Since California voters won the right to put initiatives on the ballot in 1912, 360 have qualified, according to a count maintained by the Secretary of State’s office.

Through the initiative process, Californians abolished poll taxes in 1914, reformed political contribution rules in 1974 and 1988, denied public services for undocumented aliens — a measure that started the Republican Party down a disastrous path with Hispanic voters — in 1994, established open primaries in 1996, and established a bipartisan redistricting panel in 2010.

As the number of required signatures has grown, so has reliance on paid signature gatherers. Deep-pocketed interests, whether business groups or wealthy individuals that fund the signature drives, frequently pay $5 or more for every signature a gatherer turns in. And because many signatures turn out to be invalid, strategists backing a given initiative routinely strive to turn in hundreds of thousands of extra signatures; simply paying the signature gatherers can cost $3 million to $4 million, or more, before the costs of a campaign are factored in.

Changing the initiative rules would have a disproportionate impact on Republicans and conservative groups. With Democrats dominating the state legislature, the initiative process is almost the only way conservatives can affect policy in California. Requiring so many signatures to be collected by volunteers would put a much bigger onus on those conservative groups.

Meanwhile, union groups would be able to take advantage of the provision that allows signatures collected by their members as volunteer-collected. Unions have long used the initiative process to raise the minimum wage, among other priorities.

The California Labor Federation sponsored the measure, which passed the Democratic-dominated California legislature on party-line votes in early September. The bill “will weaken existing incentives for fraud and deceit while protecting the public interest in transparent and accurate representation of proposed policy,” the Federation wrote in support of the bill.

Brown has not said whether he will sign or veto the bill; he has until Oct. 13 to make a decision, said Evan Westrup, a Brown spokesman.

Columnists and editorial boards at several smaller newspapers around California have called on Brown to veto the measures. “The initiative process probably needs reform, but bending the system for partisan gain isn’t it,” wrote Dan Walters, a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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