By John Wildermuth, THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
September 24, 2020
A consumer advocacy group wants to pull most of the rickety card tables, dog-eared paper petitions and pushy initiative signature gatherers from California's shopping centers and sidewalks and move it all to the internet.
Allowing signatures to be collected online could dramatically cut the costs of qualifying an initiative for the ballot and make it easier for citizens groups to participate, said Carmen Balber, executive director of the nonpartisan Consumer Watchdog.
"It's incredibly expensive to get an initiative on the ballot," Balber said, which means that deep-pocketed groups like labor unions and corporations now play an outsized role in a process originally designed to limit special interests' power.
In a report released this week, the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog estimated it now costs a minimum of $3 million just to get an initiative on the ballot, even before the campaign to pass it.
"All but the wealthiest are now locked out of the California ballot initiative process due to the high cost of participating," the report said. "Establishing an electronic signature-gathering system is now feasible and could restore the ballot initiative process to the people."
It's no secret that there's big money behind ballot initiatives. In the November election alone, Proposition 15, which would change the property tax rules for commercial property, has received millions from the California Teachers Association and public employee unions. Proposition 22, which would allow app-based drivers to be treated as independent contractors rather than employees, made the ballot with contributions of $30 million each from Uber, Lyft and Doordash.
But Balber isn't being completely altruistic in the crusade for electronic signatures. Consumer Watchdog has been involved in a number of initiative campaigns over the years, many of them aimed at the insurance industry. The group most recently qualified a measure for the 2022 ballot that would boost maximum jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits.
Electronic signatures would cut the costs for groups that now depend on paid, on-the-street solicitors to gather the hundreds of thousands of valid signatures needed to qualify a ballot measure.
"We're not trying to move the current system online," Balber said. "We want to enable groups with lots of supporters to go to them to collect signatures online."
Current law requires petition signatures to be written on a piece of paper. Since California courts have ruled that electronic signatures aren't valid on election petitions, implementing online signature gathering "will require a change in the law, either through an act of the voters or a reluctant Legislature that has seen the ballot measure process as a troublesome, meddling rival," the Consumer Watchdogreport said.
Many of the security concerns that have slowed the use of electronic signatures in the past have eased as businesses have responded to the rocketing growth of online sales and commerce with tougher safety measures. A combination of online and in-person signature collection also would ensure that people without internet access would still be able to sign a petition, Balber said.
Concerns that the ease of online signatures would lead to a flood of new initiatives aren't borne out by experience, she added.
"People will still be reluctant to provide their name, address and signature online, even if it's the same information they would need to put on a paper petition," Balber said.
Other states have studied the use of electronic signatures for ballot initiatives, but none allows them. But to Balber, it's only a matter of time.
"People just don't sign petitions anymore, even for professional solicitors," she said. "Electronic signature collection hasn't been broadly tested, so let's try it in California, even if it's just a pilot program to see if it works."