Lawmakers OK ban on paying workers per signature obtained for ballot measures

Organizers seeking to place a measure on a state or local ballot would no longer be allowed to pay for each signature under a bill that has passed the Legislature and is headed to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.

Although the voting reform legislation passed the Assembly and the Senate, both Central Coast representatives in Sacramento, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, voted against it.

The bill makes it illegal for anyone to pay, or be paid, based on the number of signatures obtained for a state or local initiative, referendum or recall petition. It would impose fines.Organizers could still pay signature gatherers on an hourly basis.

Achadjian said in an email that the bill “would make it more difficult for Californians to utilize the initiative process.”

“Rather than outlaw an entire practice based on the behavior of a few bad apples, I believe that the Legislature should look for ways to ensure that the Secretary of State and county election officials have the tools necessary to identify fraudulent signatures,” Achadjian said.

Blakeslee said, “The argument that paid signature gathering encourages fraud just isn’t supported by the facts. In 17 years of petition-related crimes, there have been only 33 convictions.”

“Areas of the California initiative system need reform,” he said, “but I can’t support legislation that simply makes it easier for only well-funded special interests to qualify their ballot measures.”

According to the bill’s author, Bay Area Democratic Sen. Ellen Corbett, paying people on a per-signature basis to collect signatures for ballot measures gives them a financial incentive to pad the numbers through forgery or other means.

“In California and throughout the country, there are increasing reports of ballot initiative fraud in the signature gathering process,” Corbett wrote.

“A circulator who collects more signatures will earn more and is more likely to forge signatures or to misrepresent the content of the petition in order to encourage people to sign,” Corbett wrote.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, payments typically range from $1 to $3 per signature, and occasionally are as high as $10 per signature.

Between 1994 and 2010, 240 cases were opened for falsifying petitions, of which 46 were sent to district attorneys for prosecution, resulting in 33 convictions, according to the Secretary of State’s election fraud investigation unit.

Since it was created in 1994, the election fraud investigation unit has reported, a larger number of convictions has been obtained for falsified petitions than for any other election crime except fraudulent voter registration.

Gov. Arnold Schwarz-enegger vetoed similar legislation in 2009.

A wide swath of mostly business organizations opposed the measure, arguing, as Achadjian did, that it makes the ballot less accessible to those who would like to place measures on it, according to MAPLight.org, a group that monitors the effect of money in politics.

Among the groups opposed were the California Retailers Association, the Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies, the California Building Industry Association, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the Western Growers Association and the Humane Society.

Those groups that supported Corbett’s bill included the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, the California Labor Federation and the Sierra Club of California, according to MAPlight.