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  •   Collecting Signatures for a Price

    Fred Kimball sits in his home in Westlake Village, Calif., surrounded by petitions for a variety of initiatives. (Todd Begelow for The Washington Post)
    By David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, April 12, 1998; Page A01

    WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif.—It's a sellers' market in names this month, and Fred Kimball loves it. "I call it the business of politics," Kimball says of his company that collects signatures for ballot initiatives, and business these days is very good.

    After negotiations with California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) yielded only an unsatisfactory compromise, 32 Indian tribes decided late in March to ask for voter approval of a measure that would legalize video slots, blackjack and off-track betting at reservation sites.

    The initiative hit the streets March 25 and, with less than 30 days left to collect 403,269 valid signatures to place it on the November ballot, the sponsors authorized Kimball and Lee Albright of National Petition Management to pay signature collectors the premium rate of $1.50 per name.

    That had an immediate impact on rival firms trying to beat the same deadline for qualifying initiatives on eight other subjects for the November ballot. "When we hit the streets at $1.50," Kimball remarked a few days later, "it moved the other petitions further down the line." Professional signature gatherers, carrying most or all of the nine, first ask people to sign the one paying the most.

    This is direct democracy, government by initiative. Since California's Proposition 13 in 1978 set a national model for legislating tax limits by a vote of the people, the initiative has become an increasingly popular device – not just in California but in 24 states, the District of Columbia and hundreds of local jurisdictions.

    Around the country, issues being prepared for the ballot include a billboard ban in Alaska, an anti-cockfighting measure in Arizona, a restriction on the size of hog farms in Colorado, a measure to let dental technicians sell false teeth directly to patients in Florida, a limit on black bear hunting in Idaho, authorization for medical use of marijuana in Maine, an assisted-suicide law in Michigan, a restriction on bear wrestling in Missouri and a ban on hunting mourning doves in Ohio.

    Tax-limitation measures, school voucher programs, laws ending affirmative action, restrictions on unions' political spending and laws increasing the minimum wage are circulating or on the ballot in many states.

    Use of the initiative has been growing in popularity, partly as a result of public frustration with gridlock and partisanship in legislatures and partly because each successful initiative encourages imitators. Critics say it has become a tool of special interests, but few legislatures have dared to interfere with this exercise of popular sovereignty.

    According to a compilation by National Voter Outreach, a signature-gathering firm based in Carson City, Nev., 1,316 state initiatives were circulated in the election cycles of 1992, 1994 and 1996. The number certified for the ballot rose from 67 in 1992 to 76 in 1994 and a new peak of 106 in 1996. Rick Arnold, the firm's owner, said the increase can be attributed largely to "the growing professionalization" of the signature-gathering firms, which he said were responsible for "at least 90 percent" of the successful petitions.

    As the initiative has grown in popularity, it also has become a lucrative business, with at least six major firms headquartered in this state and Nevada operating across the country as far away as Massachusetts and Florida.

    In the 1996 election cycle, according to California Secretary of State Bill Jones, $141,274,345 was officially reported as being spent on 27 initiative battles in California alone. That is almost as much as the $153 million taxpayers gave President Clinton and rivals Robert J. Dole and Ross Perot for that year's presidential campaigns.

    Much of the money goes for the media campaigns urging voters to support or oppose the propositions on the ballot. But just qualifying an initiative is an expensive business.

    It costs only $250 for a citizen to file an initiative petition with Jones's office. But the owners of the major signature-gathering companies agree it takes at least $1 million – some said closer to $2 million – to be assured of a successful drive. Some of that goes to lawyers for drafting the initiative and to political consultants for polls and focus groups testing the strong and weak points of the arguments for and against. But most of the money stays with the few thousand signature-gatherers and their bosses.

    In 1990, a California initiative banning mountain-lion hunting was qualified by 2,000 volunteers, but that is a rarity these days.

    While California requires the largest number of signatures, 12 other states demand that a larger percentage of the voters sign a petition, making it even harder for anyone except professionals to do the job. Oklahoma is regarded as the toughest nut to crack, allowing 90 days and requiring 8 percent of the highest recent vote to qualify a Signature gatherers need "a salesman's personality. . . . You have to make people comfortable signing something they never had heard about."

    Tom Gray,

    signature collectorpiece of legislation and 15 percent for a constitutional amendment. California gives initiative-signers a maximum of 150 days.

    Oregon is even more of a hotbed of initiative activity than its big neighbor to the south. No fewer than 81 initiatives have been filed for the November ballot, and 27 have received their official titles and are being circulated for the July deadline.

    Fred Kimball's father and namesake started the industry 30 years ago. He was an employee of Los Angeles Assessor Philip Watson, who had a property tax reform he wanted to get on the state ballot. Kimball recruited signature-gatherers and qualified the measure – and then realized he had stumbled onto a business of "paid-signatures-for-hire," as the younger Kimball puts it. By 1984, young Fred and his brother Kelly had turned Kimball Petition Management in this San Fernando Valley community into the giant of an emerging industry.

    As demand grew, former Kimball employees started their own companies to serve different segments of the market. The Kimballs early on became favorites of the teachers and unions, trial lawyers and gaming interests. Michael Arno left Kimball and formed American Petition Consultants in Gold River, a Sacramento suburb. With close ties to the state's Republican establishment, APC has qualified initiatives curbing benefits for illegal immigrants and ending affirmative action and racial preferences, as well as the initiative on the June ballot to require approval of individual union members for spending dues money on politics.

    Rick Arnold, a retired Army career officer, replaced Arno with the Kimballs and then split to form his own company, National Voter Outreach. He has worked on 17 initiative campaigns so far this year.

    Two other major firms had their origins in the political left. Ken Masterton began as a volunteer in an anti-nuclear power campaign organized by Friends of the Earth. Now he and his wife, Sarah, own Masterton and Wright, a suburban San Francisco firm with many environmental clients. Their company claims to be the only one using volunteers on many signature drives, along with paid workers.

    Angelo Paparella, owner of Progressive Campaigns in Santa Monica, is a onetime Nader's Raider who made his mark in a celebrated 1988 struggle in which the Naderites were outspent by insurance companies and trial lawyers but won passage of their auto insurance initiative. Paparella says his work force and agenda reflect his liberal origins. In 1996 he qualified the initiative for medicinal marijuana, but this year his firm also did the work to get onto the June ballot the initiative that would in effect end bilingual education in California.

    The individual or group backing an initiative typically will contract with one of these firms to provide the requisite number of valid signatures – 5 percent of the registered voters for a statute; 8 percent, or 693,230, for a constitutional amendment. The contract usually specifies a validity rate of around 70 percent or slightly more – meaning the client pays for almost half again as many signatures as the law requires.

    Costs depend on how early or late the effort begins, how popular or unpopular the cause, how simple or complex the issue is to explain, and, of course, how many competing initiatives are on the street.

    Kimball says the typical "override" or surcharge for his firm is 23 cents a name, which would mean a typical contract would guarantee Kimball Petition Management close to a quarter-million dollars.

    The firms keep their ranks of full-time employees to a minimum, hiring people as needed to sort the petitions by area and – critically – to spot-check names and addresses against computerized lists of registered voters. Almost all the firms use the same group of area coordinators and crew managers, who in turn recruit the people on the streets gathering signatures.

    Arno says there are about 50 such subcontractors in California, run by real estate and insurance agents, dog-breeders and others eager for part-time work that he says can produce "a six-figure income in a good year." Dave Vance and Tom Gray, both early retirees from other careers, work the Stockton area for America Petition Consultants and other firms. "On average, I'll be doing about five petitions at a time during the season," Gray said, "but I've done as many as 10."

    Kimball says the area coordinators and crew managers usually split a fee of 20 cents a name, but Masterton says the premium is 50 cents on the Indian gaming initiative. "Two thousand dollars a week is pretty good money for part-time work. Most of them make enough money during the petition season they can take off the rest of the year," Kimball says.

    The people who actually gather the signatures come in all sizes and shapes, lured by the prospect of lucrative part-time work with no overhead. Gray says he looks for people who have "a salesman's personality. You have to be outgoing, ready to talk, you have to make people comfortable signing something they never had heard about." Paparella says effective workers "have to be highly motivated and not afraid of rejection."

    Most street workers carry several petitions at a time; five is normal, 10 not unusual. Fred Kimball says he once saw a man in a shopping center with a card table and an ironing board on which he had arranged 17 petitions. "You have to keep 'em laughing when you have a lot," says Dave Vance. "You tell them the next one they sign will guarantee they can sue you for keeping them so long."

    Arno says a good worker can make $25 to $50 an hour: "In Florida in 1994, when gaming interests were paying $2.50 a name, some people were earning $750 a day."

    Some folks are lured across state lines to do this work, despite requirements in many jurisdictions that signature-gatherers be registered voters or permanent residents of that community. "California has a residency requirement," Arno says, "but it's violated all the time." Kimball said the lure of the Indian gaming initiative has "people coming from all over."

    All this can generate lots of income – and high costs for the initiative sponsors. But collecting signatures by direct mail, insiders say, is four or five times more expensive.

    Beyond the financial rewards, almost all the signature-gatherers say they enjoy the psychic income of empowering people. "We hold the pen that writes history," Masterton says. "You tell us what kind of history you want to write."

    Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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