By Lori Saldaña
It’s time to point out the obvious: San Diego is becoming a city governed not by democratic process, and not by elected officials who achieved office after being supported by the most voters. It is increasingly run by checkbook politics, flush with funds deposited by businesses intent on overriding the votes of the City Council.
Former Mayor Sanders may have left City Hall, but he learned how to take the power with him. For the past year he has been able to demonstrate this power by pushing aside Council policies on community planning and now minimum wage. He is actively supporting conservative interests that hire signature gatherers to do this dirty work in public, while he and others in the Chamber ranks raise and bundle money and write checks behind the scenes.
During my 4 years serving on the Elections Committee in the State Assembly, I learned that the petition process in California is deeply flawed. Established in 1911, intended to “reform” corrupt government practices, it has evolved into the one place where campaign financing law needs the most reform. As it stands, weak statutes and lack of oversight allow unconstitutional amendments such as Prop. 8 to be placed on the ballot and wreak havoc with people’s lives.
The lack of financial transparency in the initiative process is egregious: public disclosures of the sources of the funds paying for deceptive ads, signature gathering, and “Astroturf” social media campaigns often are not available until AFTER the signatures are collected. Only then will the public know the truth: Sanders & Co. are the true power in San Diego, not elected officials.
As for the question “Why not allow it on the ballot, then have a fair election and let citizens decide?”
It’s impossible to have a “fair” election on an initiative when it was placed on the ballot by such a flawed, unfair process. Writing a law without public input, objective research and/or community hearings, and then promoting it as something it is not, is a bit like spotting a football team 2 touchdowns, then insisting the outcome of the game is “fair” because the referees will call the game the same for both teams.
Moreover, the Chamber, California Restaurant Association and others are exploiting workers in the most callous and shameless way imaginable. They do it by wrangling members of the roaming SigGathering (SG) tribe from around the state and nation. These men and women are the itinerant migrant political workers of the initiative age. They do not live here, do not vote here, and do not work here (except to be paid per signature for several weeks).
Some are housed in hotels, owned by business interests supportive of the campaign- yet these costs are not reported as contributions. Others live in their vehicles, always ready to move on to the next signature gathering gig.
The stakes are high in this unregulated industry, where people can earn $5 and more per signature. I’ve watched a team at work at my neighborhood Vons: over the course of 1 hour on a moderately busy Saturday afternoon they gathered nearly 30 signatures- not a bad hourly wage. To earn their pay, members of the tribe will misrepresent the facts, deceive and lie to San Diegans to get their signature for a ballot measure they know little about. The irony is, if it qualifies, it will delay and quite possibly eliminate earned sick days and a tiered increase to the minimum-wage- things they don’t have, so perhaps they rationalize: why should anyone else?
Worse: Technically they are not breaking the law when they misrepresent the facts to deceive a registered voter, because there is no “law” at the state or local level against lying, cheating and stealing signatures with deception and omission. The SGs will simply say “I don’t know” when pressed for details- and they likely don’t know. They don’t live here, they don’t know the history of hours-long public hearings on the minimum wage increase, and certainly don’t know how expensive it is to live here.
They only know, and repeat, what they are told by the people who pay them: the Chamber of Commerce and CA Restaurant Association, among others, who don’t believe in the living wage, nor in putting an honest face forward in this debate.
Fortunately, hundreds of San Diegans have realized that they have been deceived and have asked for their signatures to be removed from these petitions, via the City Clerk’s office. There is even a website created by Raise Up San Diego, to help with this process: www.TheyLiedToMe.net
We believe these signatures represent the tip of the iceberg, and I’m one of many volunteers, working to educate many more voters so they realize they have been duped. RaiseUp San Diego is working to present them with their options to remove their good name from this ballot measure, so it’s not used for bad things.
Sadly, it’s been over 30 years since a genuine VOLUNTEER signature gathering effort made it onto the state ballot. No telling how long it’s been since a city initiative qualified. And how does one know if the SG is a volunteer or paid, and who is paying them? In California, there is no easy way to determine this, but in Colorado, they state:
“Any petition entity that provides compensation to a circulator to circulate a petition, must obtain a license from the Secretary of State.”
“If you are a circulator who will not be paid for circulating a petition concerning a ballot issue, you must display an identification badge that includes the words “VOLUNTEER CIRCULATOR” in bold-faced type that is clearly legible. If you are a circulator who will be paid for circulating a petition concerning a ballot issue, you must display an identification badge that includes the words “PAID CIRCULATOR” in bold-faced type that is clearly legible and the name and telephone number of the individual employing the circulator.”
Which leads me to this: it’s time for the City Ethics Commission and City Council to conduct hearings and begin to regulate this local industry. They can learn from states like Colorado, and also Oregon, which also has a lengthy and detailed Circulator Training manual.
This Oregon manual also governs paid circulators in ways California does not:
Registering as a Paid Circulator ORS 250.048
Any person that will be paid to gather signatures on a state initiative, referendum or recall petition must register with the Elections Division as a paid circulator.
Circulators are not required to be residents of Oregon, registered voters or old enough to vote.
Under Oregon election law, any person, with one exception, can register as a paid circulator.
A person does not qualify and is prohibited from applying to be a registered circulator if in the last 5 years they have been: convicted in any state for a criminal offense involving fraud, forgery or identification theft fined for a violation of the circulator registration or petition account laws
fined for making a false statement, oath or affidavit required under election law
Yes, Oregon gets it: people who lie to voters to get their signature don’t deserve a second chance. They are banned from doing it again, and they must register and be identified before going out and collecting signatures.
There are just under 4 million people in Oregon and 5 million in Colorado. There are 1.3 million in San Diego. Certainly, if these relatively small states can enact such protections, to protect people from being mislead, deceived and lied to, San Diegans can ask for the same.
We deserve the same level of integrity and honesty in the initiative process that is now provided to the voters north and east of us.
UPDATE: Gov. Brown recently signed SB 125, and that will have an impact on future initiative measures. For more information about changes to this process, see: http://www.cafwd.org/
SB 1253, which was authored by Senator Darrell Steinberg, starts us down the road of bringing greater simplicity, transparency and accountability to the initiative process.
Specifically the new law will:
- Give voters more useful information about initiatives so they can make informed decisions
- Create ballot materials that are drafted in clear and straight-forward language
- Allow authors to remove initiatives in order to reduce confusion on the ballot”
Kathleen Connell says
The initiative process is a form of direct democracy. Paying anyone to gather signatures always favors interests with deep pockets. Why not just ban paid signature gatherers, period? If you can muster verified volunteers then bring your petitions forward. Lori said what I have been thinking…these signature gatherers are the migrants of politics. Unorganized, no voice and probably no other job options. At least, the Registrar of Voters should train, certify and sanction signature gathers-and thier canvassing campaign bosses for the kind of initiative integrity that Lori suggests. This means the ROV must be empowered to police sig drives on the ground.
Doug Porter says
Unfortunately the legal/judicial line of reasoning equating money with free speech in politics means banning paid signature gatherers won’t withstand a court challenge. This approach has already been tried and been found unconstitutional.
The courts have sent mixed messages on regulating paid canvassers; it’s probable a well-written law will stand at least to the Supreme Court level. So the answer for now is to try and create rules and regulations.
In a perfect world I’d like to see the Chamber’s (and anybody else engaging in deceptive campaigns) “brand” degraded. Jerry Sanders should be regarded as an enemy of democracy; Jason Roe (the consultant running this campaign) as the spawn of satan (did anybody else hear him calling older minimum wage earners losers on the radio?). The next Chamber self-congratulatory event should warrant a picket line.
lori saldana says
Thanks Kathleen- FYI, Bans on paying SGs has been found unconstitutional. Likewise requiring them to live in or be registered to vote in the the area they are working hasn’t held up under court review.
However, IDing them as PAID vs VOLUNTEER is allowed, as is now done in Colorado. A few years ago, Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill along those lines, but perhaps Brown would sign one. That would be an important first step, since many voters believe these men and women at the stores are idealistic volunteers.
In fact, it has been over 30 years since a volunteer driven initiative qualified for the statewide ballot. Not sure of results locally.
At the local level, the County Registrar of Voters could enforce rules from the Secretary of State’s office, which need to be initiated by someone in Sacramento- unless/until the County Board of Supervisors passes rules/regs of their own. This is a bit unlikely, but possible.
As for city: The City Clerk has oversight of city initiatives- and that office could enact changes after action by the City Council, ideally with guidance from the City Ethics Commission.
Public hearings, testimony, research etc. would be an important process in examining how this process has shifted from “direct democracy” to “direct sales.”
More immediately, I encourage elected officials and the media to ask the Clerk’s office: how many requests to withdraw signatures has the Clerk’s office received?
How many have they received in the past?
And- does this suggest there are problems with the process that should invalidate other signatures as well?
I spoke to a signature whore outside Ralphs in Carmel Mountain Ranch who told me he is “a musician who lives in Los Angeles and had just been working on an initiative/referendum in a county in Arkansas” (among others) prior to coming to San Diego to be a paid outside agitator who undermines the local democratic process.
A San Diego referendum or initiative should at minimum require San Diego residents to collect signatures of San Diego voters.
Doug Porter says
The anti-minimum wage people are now bringing in warm bodies from Michigan and Ohio, promising a bonus of $200 is they don’t quit and paying $10-$12 per signature. Regardless of how their signature drive turns out–and 34,000 is a low threshold–there must be consequences (moral & political–it’s perfectly legal) for their actions going forward.
bob dorn says
When John Lawrence and I spent some time tracking Sig whores, one of them gave up his post to ask if we were hiring. The absolute perversion of the referendum process makes it the street-level symbol of Citizens United.
Activists and volunteers haven’t the cash to pay people to gather signatures, but would the Supreme Court rule this a violation of free speech? Nope. Wouldn’t the 5 Cons of the Court rule instead that any laws that forbid per-signature payments to gatherers are, in fact, restraint of trade? Yup.
I can’t remember a time in my long life when the stated principles of this country have been more clearly at risk than they are now, nor when the the broader public has been less aware of that fact.
Kathleen Connell says
I am all for regulation. It is also true that what is deemed constitutional changes, as the history of LGBT rights in the courts demonstrates over decades.
Thanks to everyone who is casting a bright light on lax petition drives that trades a lie for a signature. As it stands, any billionaire with a dream can over rule legislation in this state-or states, as the 6 California proposition proposes. Based on the precidents you cited about the courts, it seems to me that regulations will also be challenged in court. The upside is that this will cast even more sunshine on the need for rules and regs.
Lori Saldaña says
One important (and constitutional) step that the City Council and/or Ethics Commission could take for adding transparency to this sig gathering process would be to require the major contributors to these efforts be ID’d, as now required at state level. So the SGs would have to provide a list of the top 5 organizations/people giving $$, and this also must be listed, prominently, on all materials generated by the campaign.
Howard Kahn says
The fact of the matter is the minimum wage increase law was not put in place by elected officials. When Kevin Faulconer gave up his council seat to become mayor, his seat should have been given to someone who represented his constituency. It wasn’t. If it was, the vote never would have passed. The minimum wage increase should have been put on the ballot from the start. To have six council members whose campaigns are bank rolled by unions mandate this law is not the democratic process in action.
Doug Porter says
I’ll agree to that only if every other thing passed is also negated. Be careful what you wish for.