SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE (EDITORIAL): Paid-for petitions

July 18, 2011

Paid-for petitions

It's a familiar sight as you push a shopping cart out of a supermarket. A stranger waves a clipboard under your nose and asks if you will lend your name to a ballot measure that would lower taxes, preserve your rights or keep the ocean blue.

It may sound great, but beware. What's going on is electoral bounty-hunting, the underside of the state's big bucks election industry.

The signatures of hundreds of thousands of registered voters are needed to qualify initiatives and constitutional changes for the statewide ballot. To get the job done, signature gatherers are deployed by deeppocket sponsors, who pay these field-workers by the numbers of names collected. The rates might total a few dollars per name, but it's not hard to see what happens. Signature-gatherers devise misleading pitches to woo signers.

One example: paid name-collectors for a San Francisco pension measure described it as a bid to end nighttime parking meters, the better to sell a complicated topic. On Gov. Jerry Brown's desk is SB168, which would remedy the situation. The bill, by state Sen. Ellen Corbett, a San Leandro Democrat, would bar the persignature, bounty-hunter system. Petition-gatherers could still be paid by the hour or day.

The bill passed the Legislature on party lines. Republicans and business organizations have opposed it, and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a prior version. To this side, the initiative process is a powerful alternative to the Democratic-dominated statehouse. These critics feel any limitation weakens a valuable political option.

The measure has drawn support from several labor groups, who want to curb a practice used by their opponents. Also in favor is Secretary of State Debra Bowen, whose office oversees elections and reported 240 instances of falsified petitions between 1994 and 2010. In many of these cases, gatherers simply enter random names to boost their paychecks.

There are other worthy reforms to the petition process, such as disclosures about a petition's major sponsors and whether the eager sidewalk worker is a volunteer or a hired hand.

But for now, SB168 would be a useful step forward.

Please sign it, governor.