By John Wildermuth, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
January 2, 2019
The price of putting an initiative on the ballot is soaring, and California voters have only themselves to blame.
The huge turnout in the Nov. 6 election instantly boosted the number of valid signatures required to qualify a measure for the ballot by about 70 percent. And because almost every initiative backer uses paid collectors to gather those signatures, the cost will skyrocket.
“The initiative process already has turned into a playground of millionaires,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, which has been involved in numerous initiative campaigns. “Now it becomes the playground of billionaires.”
It’s a simple matter of math. Under California law, it takes 5 percent of the total votes cast for governor in the most recent election to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot and 8 percent for a state constitutional amendment.
In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown’s ho-hum re-election contest with little-known Republican Neel Kashkari drew the worst percentage turnout for a governor’s election in state history. A mere 7.31 million people bothered to vote — meaning that for the next four years, it took 365,879 signatures to qualify an initiative and 585,407 for an amendment.
Fast-forward to 2018. Democrat Gavin Newsom won an easy victory over GOP businessman John Cox for governor, but the state’s anti-President Trump mood combined with some smoking-hot congressional races to bring out more than 12.4 million voters, a record for a governor’s contest.
That jumped the initiative threshold to 623,212 signatures and 997,139 for amendments.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had two sequential elections where one was the lowest and one was the highest,” said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
While the turnout for the governor’s race typically jumps around, the percentage increase from 2014 to 2018 was the second-highest in California history. It trails only the 140 percent jump from 1910 to 1914, which was the first year women were allowed to vote for governor.
The new signature requirement is going to hurt a lot of public interest groups that already have trouble coming up with the cash to get their initiatives on the ballot, Court said.
“You’re going to see a lot fewer initiatives,” he predicted. “This is a huge roadblock to access the ballot box for ordinary people.”
It already costs at least $2 million to qualify a measure for the ballot, and that’s before a single dollar is spent on a campaign to actually win the election. The new signature numbers are likely to boost that amount dramatically.
That might not be a big deal for the union groups that spent more than $18 million to qualify and campaign for the unsuccessful Proposition 8 kidney dialysis measure on the November ballot or the bail bond industry, which is backing a potential referendum to overturn the 2018 law eliminating the cash bail system. Then there are deep-pocketed individuals like Cox, who before his run for governor put up $2.33 million of his own money for an initiative that would have increased the Legislature to 12,000 members and still fell short of the needed signatures.
But groups without a huge base of support or a financial angel to back their efforts are going to find it tougher to qualify an initiative.
“The costs go up, and only those groups with lots of money will be able to continue,” Guerra said. “We’ve crossed the threshold already where initiatives are generally not voter- or community-based, but this makes it worse.”
Going back to the old, grassroots way of qualifying an initiative doesn’t work when it will take more than 600,000 valid signatures to get an initiative on the ballot. Proposition 117, a 1990 measure that designated mountain lions as a protected species, was the last statewide campaign to use only volunteers to collect the needed signatures.
Since then, it’s been well-paid political consultants specializing in signature gathering who have done most of the legwork in initiative efforts, mobilizing the army of clipboard-wielding collectors on street corners and by supermarkets. They typically make $1 to $3 for every signature they get.
The costs add up quickly. And groups always collect far more signatures than they need to ensure they have enough valid ones to qualify for the ballot.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been efforts to game the system. The new signature numbers didn’t take effect until the election was certified by the secretary of state on Dec. 14. But two measures already have qualified for the November 2020 ballot under the old numbers, one that bumps up some crimes from misdemeanors to felonies and another that revises 1978’s Proposition 13 to allow commercial and industrial property to be taxed at a higher rate. Eight other measures using the lower limits are circulating around the state.
“It was a very strategic decision” to push to get those initiatives going, Guerra said. Supporters “knew the signature numbers were going to go up.”
With California’s growing population and increasingly effective efforts to register voters and get them to the polls, total turnout is likely to keep rising — and with it the number of signatures that initiatives will need.
“We’re going to see more and more innovation” as people try to find cheaper and more efficient ways to collect signatures, Guerra said.
Grassroots groups already are looking at the possibility of using online petitions and electronic signatures, something that’s been barred in California since at least 2010, when a San Mateo County judge ruled against efforts to submit electronic signatures on a flash drive for a statewide initiative.
“There’s no difference between an electronic signature and a regular one, since they both have to be checked by local registrars,” Court said. “But the courts won’t allow it.”
A proposed 2018 initiative would have allowed the use of electronic signatures for both state and local initiatives and ordered the secretary of state to develop a system allowing voters to sign petitions online.
But backers couldn’t collect enough signatures.
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.