Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Problem with Petitioning. . .

As you may have noticed from the posts below, or from the Voice of San Diego, or lately, Daily Kos, you might have noticed a slight problem we seem to be having with our signature-gathers here in San Diego.  It appears that our local petitioners (as they prefer to be called) have been misleading voters throughout San Diego about various initatives.  I can't say I'm surprised.

First, a slight confession - in the summer of 1996, I worked as a signature gatherer/petitioner for Voter Revolt, a group that, the more I think about it, was a fairly conservative organization.  In my defense, it was the 1990's, and we were all "New Democrats" back then.  Also, I was young and didn't know any better.  And lastly, the initiatives I worked on were fairly innocuous - term limits for Congress and a limitation on how much money school districts could spend on non-classroom spending.  Neither were great, but they weren't bad either.

From that experience, here's what I can tell you about petitioning - its hard work, and most people don't last long.  As a petitioner, I would stand in a parking lot or some other designated area, and walk up to people and talk to them.  The goal was to get them to sign my petitions, and for each valid signature, I'd get $0.25.  As I had two petitions, I could get $0.50 out of most people.  The money sucked, but going out there, being with the people, it felt like politics, only it wasn't (oh, and the independent contractor thing the company was running was a total scam, but I digress).  Instead, Voter Revolt was paid by some group to gather the signatures, and they were paid to do it.

Now, from later experience, I can tell that most professional petitioners are much more mercenary than I was.  They gather signatures for petitions based not on whether they agree with the issue, but how much it pays.  A reasonably decent petitioner can get 200 signatures in a day - if the petition is paying out at $1-$2 per signature, working 5 days a week, well, that can be as much as $1000 per week, or $4000 per month.  That's more than I made out of law school.*  As a result, petitioning, in my experience, attracts interesting people.  People with a lot of charm, little job skills, and a desire for a flexible work schedule.  Given what we now know, is it surprising that a few (or more than a few) are actively misleading voters?  I bet that anti-union petition is paying over $2 per signature.

Ultimately, every initiative campaign needs these professionals to collect signatures because they are really, really good collecting a lot of valid signatures in a short period of time.  As a result, the "grassroots" aspect of the initiative process is not grassroots at all - its simply a way for the wealthy to get around legislative bodies.

*Okay, I did work for a non-profit out of law school, but still, $48k per year ain't bad.

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