Saturday, August 7, 2010




So-called reformers have suggested plenty of big steps to change or improve California's ballot initiative process, which now lets almost any person, company or interest group willing to put up $1 million or so place anything it likes on the statewide ballot.

These propositions often are couched in the most populist, consumerist terms, when in reality they’d do nothing but feather the nests of the paying sponsors. Classic examples from the June primary election were Propositions 16 and 17, one funded by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the other by Mercury Insurance Co.

Sometimes voters see through these subterfuges as they did in June; sometimes they don’t.

Ideas for reforming the process have ranged from requiring the state Legislature to review all pending propositions and offer alternatives that the sponsors might accept as a substitute to raising the number of voter signatures needed for putting an initiative on the ballot to a ban on hiring petition circulators not registered to vote in California.

Another idea – itself included in a defeated “political reform” initiative – would have forced initiative sponsors to include the names of their five largest campaign contributors as a “crawl” in all their television commercials, in type as large as the largest type elsewhere in the ad.

Some of these notions have merit; some don’t. So far, none has gotten anywhere. It would take a ballot proposition to let legislators vet initiative ideas, and it’s certain that virtually all special interests would pump many millions of dollars into an effort to stop any measure that included this idea.

Courts struck down a tentatively passed bill requiring that all petition circulators be in-state residents. And voters rejected large-type TV commercial crawls.

But the self-described reformers – some call their efforts tinkering – press on. The latest proposal, which passed the state Senate in late May, has a lot of merit and just might stand up to the court scrutiny it would inevitably receive if passed.

This one would let persons accosted by petition circulators on their way into or out of places like big box stores, supermarkets, theaters or shopping malls know whether the person asking them to sign is a real believer in the measure being promoted or just a hired hand.

The vast majority of today’s petition circulators are in fact paid, with compensation often ranging from 50 cents to more than $2 per valid voter signature gathered. Those bounties are the reason circulators often carry more than one petition and ask voters to sign on multiple dotted lines.

The Senate-approved bill would force paid circulators to wear badges saying “Paid Signature Gatherer.” The badge would also show where they are registered to vote, so folks they accost could know whether they actually have a stake in what they’re promoting. If the circulator isn’t registered to vote, the badge would also have to say that.

This wouldn’t be much, and it’s entirely possible that some court somewhere would rule the requirement that circulators say from where they hail is a restraint of trade. But the essence of this measure is to let voters know when the person approaching them is doing it for money or ideals.

If that makes it take longer for circulators to gather the hundreds of thousands of names needed to put any proposed law on the ballot, so much the better.

That would be a step toward leveling the initiative playing field, where monied interests now have a big advantage over groups with idealistic or ideological reasons for wanting to pass a law. Any measure backed by sufficient funds can hire a circulating firm to carry its petitions, while those that buck the big-money interests usually have to use volunteers.

Anything making life a little harder for paying sponsors would be a step in the right direction. Another good step might be to extend the current 150-day limit to 200 or 250 days, but only for measures that use exclusively volunteer circulators.

Neither badges nor a little bit more time would be enough to solve all the ills big money has brought to the initiative process. But there’s little doubt such changes would be a positive step in the direction of honesty, equity and openness.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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