California Politics: Big bucks for ballot measure signatures

Tim Ecker collects signatures from grocery store patrons.
Tim Ecker collects signatures from grocery store patrons including Antonia Lopez, right, in Silverlake in 2016.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

It’s conventional wisdom in California politics that almost any proposed law can get on the ballot if its backers have enough cash.

The era of grass-roots, volunteer signature drives to qualify a ballot measure long ago gave way to an “initiative industrial complex” that pays petition circulators by how many signatures they collect at those ubiquitous folding tables outside supermarkets and department stores.

The economics are simple: Per-signature prices are low when an election is a long way away and only a few ballot measure proposals are in circulation. And prices rise sharply when interest groups begin their initiative campaigns late and petition circulators are in high demand.

Voters may think November’s election is barely on the horizon, but for the industry built around petition drives, this is the homestretch. Some of the groups behind this election cycle’s bumper crop of proposals simply don’t have the necessary funds while a few that do are hinting they’ll spend whatever it takes, possibly setting a new record for the cost of signature gathering.

Six campaigns with cash, some paying $6 per signature

It appears that a spike in per-signature prices is on the horizon, based on conversations this week with several political strategists and petition circulators — who asked to speak anonymously in order to provide a candid assessment of what’s going on. Some provided a glimpse at their own spreadsheets that track signature-gathering costs. The amounts were later confirmed by other strategists, including some who are working on the campaigns.


Everyone’s tally was the same: Petition circulators are now collecting signatures on six proposed ballot measures, with possibly one or two more initiatives that could join the fray within the next two weeks.

Two high-profile campaigns are paying $6 per voter signature: One is an effort to legalize sports betting in California, and the other is a proposed income tax surcharge on incomes over $5 million to fund pandemic prevention programs.

A third initiative, a tax hike on incomes above $2 million to fund greenhouse gas emission efforts, is paying $5 per signature. Petition circulators are receiving $3 per signature on an initiative to provide arts and music education in schools and a proposal to limit civil lawsuits filed by employees.

The sixth initiative in circulation would impose new rules governing private kidney dialysis clinics — two previous propositions on the issue were rejected by voters — and its backers are paying $2 per voter signature.

The X-factor: COVID-19

Comparing the per-signature price between campaigns is tricky. Prices fluctuate depending on how many signatures are needed and how close supporters are to reaching their goal. And the goals vary — initiatives to amend the California Constitution require more voter signatures to qualify for the ballot than those proposing a new law.

All campaigns are grappling with the challenge of collecting voter signatures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports of coronavirus cases among petition circulators are common and outbreaks can mean fewer people at the sidewalk tables and too few staff to quickly review and process the signed petitions before submitting them to elections officials.


Last year, a Sacramento judge ruled that COVID-19 restrictions had unfairly slowed down the signature collection efforts by proponents of two ballot measures. Both campaigns were given extra time and the measures have since qualified for spots on the November ballot. While it’s possible similar legal relief could be given to the initiatives now in circulation, the timing would be tight.

By the numbers: $15, $18, 12 weeks

Two veteran strategists of the initiative process said they wouldn’t be surprised to see prices as high as $15 per signature by the time the finish line approaches this spring. While there’s no official data on signature payments — campaigns report total petition costs on disclosure forms, a lump sum of these expenses — the consensus seems to be that $10 per signature is the high-water mark from previous statewide ballot measure drives. (Local ballot measures often cost much more per signature, partly the result of having a smaller pool of voters from which to gather the needed support.)

Of particular interest is a still-to-come proposal to raise California’s minimum wage to $18 an hour by 2025. The proponent is Joe Sanberg, a wealthy Los Angeles investor who could probably fund the petition drive all on his own, though an advisor says volunteers are expected to assist in the effort to collect signatures.

Sanberg won’t have much time. His initiative isn’t expected to receive clearance for signature gathering until next week and there are only about 12 weeks left before the date by which state elections officials say initiative campaigns should have submitted all signed petitions to county registrars of voters — and that assumes a high percentage of randomly sampled signatures are valid. If elections officials have to check every signature, the recommended deadline is in early March.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber will officially certify the list of November ballot propositions on June 30.

11 propositions in November?

If all seven of these measures qualify for the ballot, California voters could see 11 propositions on the Nov. 8 ballot. Four proposals have already collected enough signatures: a sports betting initiative championed by Native American tribes with gaming interests; an initiative to loosen the state’s existing cap on medical malpractice awards; a proposal to tax single-use plastic packaging and utensils; and a referendum to overturn a 2020 law banning the sale of flavored tobacco.

The tobacco showdown is the result of a signature drive funded by the industry’s biggest companies. On Thursday, tobacco opponents launched their campaign to preserve the law, led by Sen. Alex Padilla and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis.

It’s possible some of the other measures won’t end up on the ballot. California law allows the proponents of an initiative to withdraw their measure at the last minute, offering the opportunity to negotiate with Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature. That option has been used only twice in recent years — first in 2016 to raise the state’s minimum wage and again in 2018 to enact a sweeping consumer privacy law.


Perhaps the most intriguing matchup would involve the rival initiatives to legalize sports betting. Online wagering companies have already committed more than $100 million for their initiative, potentially pitting them against tribal casino interests that have spent heavily — and won — on ballot campaigns in the past.

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California politics lightning round

— Newsom and state lawmakers reached an agreement Tuesday to again require employers to provide workers with up to two weeks of supplemental paid sick leave to recover from COVID-19 or care for a family member with the virus.

California students would be required to be immunized for COVID-19 under a bill introduced Monday, offering backup to districts such as L.A. Unified that have struggled with their own mandates while igniting familiar backlash from critics.

— Lawmakers will also soon consider Senate Bill 866, to permit children 12 and older to be vaccinated, including against COVID-19, without a parent’s consent or knowledge.

— The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday took steps intended to phase out oil drilling and gas extraction in the city, moving to address the legacy of environmental and health problems caused by an industry that helped create modern Southern California.


— Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin announced Wednesday that he will not seek reelection to a third term, just one week after a recall bid targeting him fell short of gathering the required signatures.

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