By John Wildermuth, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
March 23, 2020
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order will not only keep people off the streets, but also could keep some initiative measures off the November ballot.
With the statewide ban on nearly all public contact, signature gatherers who normally set up their tables at supermarkets, on street corners and at crowded public events will find themselves out of business. And without the signatures, supporters of a variety of ballot measures could find themselves short of qualifying.
That’s a huge deal for those initiatives. Measures that don’t make the upcoming ballot can’t go before the public until November 2022.
Even before Newsom’s order Thursday, it was tough going for advocates of many initiatives. The coronavirus threat already had people shying away from signature gatherers anxious to get up close and personal with their clipboards and much-used pens in hand.
“Even a lot of people who wanted to sign didn’t want to sign,” said Fred Kimball, whose Southern California company runs petition drives across the state. “These are tough times, and you have to get creative.”
For Kimball, that meant buying some 300,000 pens, so everyone who might want to sign could get their own.
That wasn’t enough, even before the ban.
“We were getting 70,000 signatures a week until a couple of weeks ago, when it almost stopped,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, which is working to qualify an initiative to raise the award limits in medical negligence cases. “Circulators who normally get 14 to 20 signatures an hour were getting maybe five.”
The reason is no mystery, he added.
November 2020 ballot measures
Rent control: Allows local governments to expand rent control.
Bail: A referendum to reverse the 2018 replacement of money-based bail.
Split roll: Revises Proposition 13 to allow commercial property to be regularly reassessed.
Parole: Limits parole for some non-violent offenders.
Pending signature verification
Tax base: Eases rules to allow older and disabled homeowners to transfer their property tax base to three new residences.
Measures with 25% of required signatures
Split roll: If it qualifies, it would replace the similar measure above.
Malpractice: Raises the limits on awards in medical malpractice cases.
Privacy: Allows consumers to bar the sale of their data.
Stem cell: Allows new $5.5 billion bond for stem cell research.
Dialysis: Sets new rules for private kidney dialysis clinics.
Drivers: Allows app-based drivers to be considered contractors, not employees.
Recycling: Sets tougher rules on single-use containers and packaging.
Gambling: Allows sports betting at Indian casinos.
Source: California secretary of state
“People don’t want to be that close to a signature collector,” Court said.
And signature gatherers, who may walk up to hundreds of people every day, are just as leery of being near that many people.
“We’ve lost a lot of circulators who have either left the state or just stopped collecting,” said Kimball.
Weston Mickey is a Paradise (Butte County) resident who has been in the signature-gathering business since he worked on the Gov. Gray Davis recall in 2003. But with the virus spreading through the state, he has stepped away.
“I shut down about three weeks ago,” he said. “I didn’t want someone’s blood on my hands.”
He’s unhappy that many petition companies have kept their people on the streets, collecting signatures even though the contacts endanger both the gatherers and the people they meet.
“They don’t care about us,” Mickey said. “The people who have been doing this for a long time should know better.”
But circulators are contract workers who are paid by the signature, Kimball said. They decide whether they are going to work.
“I don’t know how we’re taking advantage of someone when all they have to say is, ‘Bye,’” he said.
Four measures already have qualified for the November ballot, and 22 more are certified by the state and eligible to collect signatures. Some of those were probably headed for the 2022 ballot even without a stay-at-home order. Others, including one that would ban the sale of gas-powered cars manufactured after 2020 and another that would convert the Legislature to a single house of 250 members, are more political statements than likely laws.
But backers of eight proposed initiatives already have reported collecting at least 25% of the required signatures, which generally means they are serious about getting them on the ballot.
Although June 25 is the official deadline for qualifying initiatives for November, the real deadline is far earlier, since counties need as much as two months to count and verify those signatures before they report the results to the state.
In the past, there has been some flexibility in the county date. But with coronavirus fears all but shutting down most county functions, that’s not going to happen this year, said Kimball.
“Anyone who wants to make the November election can’t go past April 21,” he said. “After that, counties can just say, ‘no.’”
Many of the initiative campaigns looking to November already have finished collecting signatures and are focused on doing their own check of the signatures and preparing to deliver them to county registrars.
An initiative backed by Uber and Lyft that would allow drivers to be classified as independent contractors instead of employees collected the 1 million signatures that the companies sought by the end of February, missing most of the problems caused by the virus.
“We were really lucky,” said Stacy Wells, a spokeswoman for the campaign. “We got our signatures in fast and were able to get off the streets in seven weeks.”
The state requires 623,212 valid signatures to qualify an initiative and 997,139 to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. But campaigns typically look to gather hundreds of thousands more to cover the duplicate and invalid signatures that inevitably appear.
That would normally be the next step for backers of the California consumer privacy initiative, which would allow people to ban the sale of their personal data. But while organizers would like more signatures, they don’t believe it would be right to have people on the street to collect them.
“We’re in pretty good shape with the numbers that we have, but are adhering to public health requirements and putting public safety first,” said Robin Swanson, a consultant for the effort. “Like most ballot measure campaigns out there, we’d always love more signatures, but we’re dealing with a stark new reality while the state is on lockdown.”
Backers of an initiative to revise Proposition 13 to allow a split property tax roll and another to set new rules on private kidney dialysis clinics also are confident they will go before the voters in November.
It’s a grimmer story for supporters of an effort to allow sports betting at Indian casinos in California. They need just under 1 million valid signatures because the measure is a proposed constitutional amendment, and they are not there yet.
“We are at nearly 1 million signatures and were on a trajectory to reach our goal well ahead of the deadline before the unprecedented orders around COVID-19,” said Jacob Mejia, spokesman for the initiative effort. “The health and well-being of Californians is foremost. Thus, paid signature-gathering efforts have paused for the time being.”
It’s a similar situation for the initiative that would provide a new $5.5 billion bond for stem cell research.
“In keeping with the governor’s statewide order for nonessential businesses to close and residents to remain at home, we’ve suspended all signature gathering for the time being,” said Sarah Melbostad, a spokeswoman for the initiative. “We’re confident that we still have time to qualify and plan to proceed accordingly.”
For Court, whose medical malpractice initiative is short of its signature goal but above the state requirement, the time-tested ways of qualifying an initiative won’t work when people’s only concern is the pandemic.
Although some campaigns reportedly were paying as much as $5 a signature in desperate efforts to get on the November ballot, it’s a different world today, Court said.
“There’s not any amount of money you can pay to get a couple hundred thousand signatures now,” he said.
John Wildermuth is a native San Franciscan who has worked as a reporter and editor in California for more than 40 years and has been with the San Francisco Chronicle since 1986. For most of his career, he has covered government and politics. He is a former assistant city editor and Peninsula bureau chief with The Chronicle and currently covers politics and San Francisco city government.