Jerry Brown Takes a Big Risk With Your Printer and Stapler

Gov. Jerry Brown sent out an email today that is full of peril for him, and perhaps a bit of promise for citizens. And the peril and promise both have to do with printers and staplers.

Here's the story. Brown's email asked voters to click a link to his web site, where they are asked to sign the petition for his compromise temporary-tax-hike ballot initiative.

But there's a problem, not fully acknowledged on the site. The petition is four pages long.

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Why is that a problem? Because in California, the state has long insisted -- to prevent fraud -- that initiative petitions consist of one "contiguous" sheet of paper. You don't want questions raised about whether a person signed one page of a petition, thinking it was a different petition, only to have it attached to a different petition. That's why, if you ever stop and handle an initiative petition that consists of multiple pages of information, you'll find the pages are actually the folds of a very large piece of paper. 

It's also why ballot initiative campaigns, in the past, have only asked voters to download petitions and print out them to sign them when the initiatives are so short they can fit on one page. Multi-page initiatives were deemed out-of-bounds for this kind of download-and-sign production.

In an email, Nicole Winger of the Secretary of State's office says this isn't in the law, but it has been the practice. She writes:

There is no statutory requirement to have one contiguous petition document, though each petition must contain "a full and correct copy of the circulating title and summary and text of the proposed measure".  However, the Secretary of State has always strongly recommended one contiguous petition document to protect voters and proponents from unscrupulous circulators who may show the text of one measure to a voter then switch it to another measure before filing petition signatures.

Brown's appeal to download-and-sign is thus a risk. And if he can pull it off without challenges, he could establish a new practice.

Brown's site asks you to print the four pages out and staple them together.

This is risky for two reasons. For one thing, since printing slightly changes the margins, and the state has exacting rules on margins and other font sizes, Brown is counting on you resetting your printer in a way that won't change the margins.

But the bigger risk is the staples. It's quite possible that, given the longstanding practice, that stapled-together petitions will get extra scrutiny, and may be more likely to be declared invalid. This will be new. Many local initiatives I've encountered have used this, but I'm unaware of any statewide petitions that have tried this. Mike Arno, owner of a leading state firm that isn't working on this initiative, told me by email that he's batted around the idea of using stapled-together petitions like this for years, but found "there isn't an election lawyer in the state that would allow a stapled statewide."

But Brown, in this initiative, is pushing at existing limits. So far, it's worked. He got the attorney general and legislative analyst to turn around a title and summary for him in less than 48 hours (the process usually takes up to six weeks).

We'll see. But Brown may be opening himself up to two threats. The first is a legal challenge to his signatures that could delay certification of the measure -- in a way that keeps him off the ballot. And if county clerks question the stapled petitions, it could hurt the initiative's validity rate, and thus lead to longer checking of signatures -- and ultimately a delay in qualifying the measure.

I, for one, hope that Brown gets away with this -- and establishes a precedent of sorts. It would be easier and cheaper to circulate petitions if some of the strict rules, particularly on margins and the like, were loosened.

What would be even easier and cheaper than all of this, of course, would be to permit initiative sponsors to gather signatures electronically on the Internet itself. If Brown's risky gambit with your printer and stapler pushes in that direction, his initiative will have been a public service, no matter what you think of the taxes and budget provisions of his measure.

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