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The real problem behind the current Walmart vs. San Diego City Council story is that of a subversion of democracy by a ballot initiative process that badly needs reform. The process is no longer a “citizens’ initiative” but rather a process by which corporations with deep pockets can pay to collect signatures with little or no regard for quality or accuracy of information given to the voters.

The current Walmart case highlights the way in which those with enormous cash reserves can overpower our own elected government. City council members elected by the citizens of San Diego voted last month to pass regulations requiring a review of community impacts before approving big-box superstores. The Walmart corporation opposed that policy. By paying professional signature collectors, it quickly filled petitions for a ballot measure on repealing the regulations.

The signatures gathered, not by a citizens’ group or volunteers, but by people paid per signature, would force a special election with an enormous price tag for the city — more than $2.5 million. Given the City’s dire financial straits, the council members have little choice but to reverse their own decision in order to avoid that cost.

The signature gathering process needs serious reform. Several states prohibit paying people per head to register voters, to avoid creating an incentive for fictitious registrations. We believe that policy is a good one, and should be extended to petition drives here in California. We have already seen in the case of last summer’s failed initiative sponsored by Councilmember DeMaio that large-scale paid drives can result in a large number of duplicate signatures. The Union-Tribune also documented in the case of the “San Diegans 4 Great Schools Initiative” that there are signature gatherers who mislead voters about the content of the petition.

Just as payment per voter registration is not allowed because of the potential for fraud, payment per signature should not be allowed for that same reason and the greater potential for misinformation of voters. At the least, California should require that those collecting the signatures be state residents and, even better, registered voters in the county where they are collecting.

As we have seen in past elections, and as we see now with a multinational corporation disempowering the San Diego City Council, more control must be exercised over how signatures are collected. Democracy requires a transparent and accountable one-person, one-vote. How deep your pockets are shouldn’t matter.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that “in California, it is not legal to pay people per head to register voters.” In fact, it is legal with certain restrictions. The document should have said “Several states prohibit paying people per head to register voters.” We regret the error.

Corinne Wilson is the lead research and policy analyst at the Center on Policy Initiatives. She lives in the Tierrasanta neighborhood of San Diego.

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