Price of Ballot Initiative Signatures Plummets

In California, qualifying an initiative for the ballot, as a practical matter, requires paying people to circulate ballot initiative petitions and collect signatures.

In the last decade, such payments have soared, with some circulators collecting $4 or $5 a signature for some initiative petitions.

As a result, the cost of qualifying has soared above $2 million, reaching $4 million for some campaigns.

But this year may be different.

Petitions are circulating right now with the aim of qualifying them for the November 2012 ballot.

I spent part of the weekend checking in with signature gatherers I know who work the eastern and southern parts of Los Angeles County.

Mostly, this consisted of listening to circulators' complaints about how little they are being paid during this signature gathering season.

No statewide petition was paying more than $1 per signature.

Four were paying circulators exactly a $1 per signature: Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative, a corporate tax change to pay for clean energy, a budget reform initiative, and the so-called "millionaire's tax," sponsored by the California Federation of Teachers.

Initiatives to limit human trafficking and the state's three strikes law were paying 75 cents. An initiative to abolish the death penalty was paying 50 cents.

What do these prices mean?

It's hard to say at this moment, since there are three more months to go before signatures must be turned in to qualify for the November ballot.

It seems likely that these prices will increase as the deadline approaches. (Most contracts for initiative signatures that I've seen have a sliding scale, with the price of signatures going up as the process goes on).

But in the past, initiatives that have been the highest payers have been the ones most likely to qualify.

Lower prices can mean one of two things:

One is that the initiatve sponsor doesn't have much cash.

The other is that a higher price isn't necessary because voters are so eager to sign the petition.

This latter situation -- popularity that makes gathering easy -- may be the case with the death penalty measure. In one San Gabriel Valley parking lot, I saw a half-dozen people lined up just to sign it.

One interesting note: some of the circulators I talked to were ignoring the statewide petitions and focusing on more lucrative local ballot petitions -- one from Riverside County, the other from LA County -- that were paying $2 and $1.50 respectively.

Backers of the statewide measures may discover they have to raise their prices if they want more signatures in those parts of Southern California.

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