In theory, getting a bunch of signatures from valid voters shouldn’t be too hard as long as enough people are willing to sign. Just hire people to gather signatures, type all the names into an Excel spreadsheet and dump the invalid ones, like duplicates. Simple, right?
Sure, if you only have to collect a few hundred or thousand signatures to put a measure on the ballot in, say, Jamul. But as San Diego’s political world discovered this week for the second time in as many years, things can go badly wrong when you’ve got to collect tens of thousands of signatures in a sprawling city that has more residents than eight states.
Even though they gathered an impressive-sounding 133,000 signatures, supporters of a measure to overhaul the governance of San Diego schools only had 90,000 valid ones. That’s a few thousand short of the number needed to put the measure on the ballot, so it’s now dead.
In particular, a swarm of duplicate signatures doomed the effort, just like a city contracting and outsourcing measure last year. The same consultants headed both efforts, raising questions about the firm.
Here are some questions and answers about what’s now become the hot political talk of the week — the seemingly mundane job of collecting signatures.
What can tie up a campaign? Can’t they just get the number of signatures they need and that’s it?
It’s not quite so easy. For a city initiative, campaigns need to collect signatures from 15 percent of San Diego’s registered voters. They typically get plenty of signatures that aren’t valid.
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One problem is that lots of signatures collected don’t count, like those of people who aren’t registered to vote or don’t live here.
People in unincorporated areas, for example, often identify with nearby cities and may wrongly believe they’re qualified to sign city-based petitions, said Angelo Paparella, president of PCI Consultants, a signature-gathering firm based in the Los Angeles area.
Then there’s the matter of duplicates. Some voters may inadvertently sign petitions more than once, Paparella said. “You need to be especially diligent. People forget they signed it a month earlier, or don’t understand it’s the same issue.”
In some cases, he said, people sign petitions multiple times in an effort to be helpful. Or they try to sabotage the efforts by submitting invalid signatures. However, he said he’s only once suspected that happened in a petition drive.
Deborah Seiler, the county’s registrar of voters, couldn’t recall a case of suspected sabotage through duplicate signatures. I couldn’t determine whether it’s illegal to sign a petition more than once.
How hard is it to detect duplicate signatures and pull them out of the total?
Checking petition signatures for duplicates and other problems isn’t “rocket science,” Paparella said, but it requires sophisticated software when tens of thousands of signatures are involved. The software must not only check for duplicates but make sure signers are properly registered and live in the appropriate city or district.
Verifying signatures is even more unwieldy when there are more than 50,000 of them, he said. That’s when his company stops checking each one for problems and relies on random spot checks instead.
Still, he said, the school reform initiative’s 133,000 signatures should have been more than enough to cross the threshold even with invalid ones thrown out.
“That was a poorly run drive,” he said.
So it’s not routine for signature gatherers to check each and every signature for potential problems?
Nope, it’s not routine. In fact, the supporters of yet another proposed city ballot measure, this one to reform the city’s employee pension system, are paying extra to hire a firm to double-check the signatures it’s gathering. The La Jolla Group, which ran the failed petition drives for the city contracting/outsourcing initiative last year and the school reform initiative this year, is also running that signature-gathering campaign.
Why do we have these endless petition drives in the first place?
For better and worse, California has been a leader in giving power to the people for a century.
In 1911, it allowed them to put measures on the ballot if enough voters sign petitions. “The idea is that it’s harder to buy half the people in the state than half the Legislature,” says Jeffrey Lewis, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, in an 2003 interview with me.
In California, we can recall politicians (as we’ve done statewide and a few times locally over the last several years) and launch initiatives that change the law or revise the state constitution. We can also put referendums on the ballot that force politicians to either repeal a decision or let voters make the call in an election.
Often, campaigns pay people to gather signatures instead of recruiting volunteers. “Paid signature collection has been going on since the very early 1900s — before 1910 — and petition businesses are just about as old,” said John G. Matsusaka, president of the University of Southern California’s Initiative & Referendum Institute.
So even before there were Ralphs supermarkets and Target stores, petition gatherers were lurking with clipboards outside places where people gather. It’s democracy next to the shopping carts, at perhaps its grittiest and most down-to-earth.