Get signatures, make money: How some gatherers are making top dollar in this year's flood of ballot initiatives
By Christine Mai-Duc
Aug 10, 2016 | 12:05 AM
When Tim Ecker decided to leave his construction job and work full time as a signature gatherer six years ago, the $1 or $2 a signature he was paid by ballot measure campaigns meant he could make a decent living. He took every gig he could get.
But this year, when several of the 15 petitions he circulated fetched $5 a signature, he worked 10-hour days, six days a week outside farmers markets and grocery stores to ride the streak as long as he could.
By mid-May, Ecker, 55, was making $3,000 a week and saved up enough money to take the rest of the year off. He did something he never imagined he could do: He turned down a petition for a local measure that paid $3 a signature.
“I’m kind of spoiled now,” he said at the time.
Ecker and his colleagues have benefited from what consultants and petition-gathering firms are calling an unprecedented year in the signature business. The number of initiatives circulated combined with the top dollar that many campaigns were willing — or, in some cases, forced — to pay to get them qualified for the November ballot has stunned even veterans of the craft.
“It was crazy. Absolutely crazy,” said Angelo Paparella, president of PCI Consultants Inc., one of the biggest firms managing the signature-gathering process for statewide campaigns.
For the record
9:46 a.m.: A previous version of this story identified Angelo Paparella as president of National Petition Management. He is president of PCI Consultants Inc.
Paparella, who’s been in the petition business for 22 years, said it isn’t unheard of for a particularly deep-pocketed campaign to pay $5 a signature when the deadline to submit them nears. But to have so many campaigns compensating workers at that level — and several others paying $3 to $4 a signature — is rare, he said.
Paparella and his competitors, who often deal directly with campaign consultants, usually employ petition coordinator firms and contractors, who in turn recruit, train and manage street teams of signature gatherers.
Carl Towe, who owns one such coordinating firm, said he’s never seen pay like this in the 30 years he’s worked in the field.
“I knew that supply and demand would drive the prices up,” he said. “But I had no idea whatsoever that they would get up this high.”
“Toward the end, it became a price war,” Towe said. When one campaign pushed a certain initiative to $3 a signature, another would ante up and pay $3.50, he said.
“It got to the point where we wondered, when will it stop?” he said.
In all, groups spent $45.8 million gathering signatures for the 15 measures that qualified by petition, an average of $4 a signature, campaign finance records show. Two others were placed on the ballot by the Legislature and therefore did not collect voter signatures.
In contrast, during the 2012 presidential election, an average of $2.50 per signature was offered for the 11 measures that ended up on the ballot.
“Toward the end, it became a price war. It got to the point where we wondered when will it stop?”
— Carl Towe, owner of Carl Towe & Associates petition management firm
So why the uptick in spending for this crucial first step of the initiative process?
One answer is that dismal voter turnout in the 2014 gubernatorial election helped lower the threshold to qualify initiatives through 2018. To get a proposed statute on the ballot this cycle required only 365,880 signatures, and a constitutional amendment needed just 585,407, compared with as many as 1.2 million in previous cycles.
The prospect of spending less time and money to qualify a measure, and the possibility of a high — and potentially favorable — presidential year turnout, lured dozens of potential initiative efforts.
As a result, the number of proposed initiatives being put in front of voters jumped.
With so many issues vying for voter attention on the street, consultants say, some campaigns continually had to raise their per-signature rates to entice gatherers to push their proposals ahead of the pack. Multiple campaigns hit peak prices early after a bidding war was sparked over signature gatherers’ services.
“Whichever one pays the most, you put that one at the top of your stack,” said Ecker, who said his strategy involved gathering signatures in one place for an entire nine- or 10-hour day.
This election cycle, the cost per signature also largely depended on how long a campaign waited to begin its efforts and how soon the deadline was approaching.
Proposition 54, a transparency measure sponsored largely by Republican mega-donor Charles Munger Jr. that would require bills be published online for at least three days before legislative votes, paid the most: $6.61 per signature submitted to the secretary of state. The cost reflects not only the per-signature price paid to circulators, but also the fees campaigns pay to the signature-gathering firms and middlemen that manage them. The per-signature cost increases when considering only those signatures that were considered valid by the secretary of state, which were far fewer than the total submitted.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s parole initiative, which could make thousands of inmates eligible for early parole, was one of the last initiatives to hit the streets after being held up by a legal challenge. The measure, Proposition 57, wasn’t cleared for signature gathering until a March 9 decision by the California Supreme Court. As a result, Brown’s campaign spent a premium: $5.6 million for a little over 1 million submitted signatures, with more than 60% of the money spent in April and June.
Towe said the parole measure started out as high as $4.50 a signature and quickly escalated to the highest number he’s seen, $5.50 a pop.
Paparella said those campaigns that started earlier — such as Proposition 60, the measure to require adult film stars to wear condoms on set, and Proposition 61, related to drug pricing — paid as little as $2.40 per signature.
“They saved a ton of money … in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.
Advocates of Proposition 52, a constitutional amendment that would make it more difficult for the Legislature to divert funds from the Medi-Cal program, paid the least at $1.79 a signature.
Cost of gathering signatures for 15 ballot measures
Propositions 58 and 59 were placed on the ballot by the Legislature and did not require signature gathering.
# OF SIGNATURES
COST PER SIGNATURE
The glut of measures led to a real problem for petition management firms like his, Paparella said: There simply weren’t enough petition gatherers to go around.
“It was very, very stressful. And very difficult,” he said. “It really did affect us in terms of how hard we had to recruit and how much money we had to pay.”
And with the economy improving, Paparella said, there’s fewer people willing to do his type of work. The early months of El Niño weather also made it difficult for signature gatherers to reach voters, as have increasingly stringent rules at places like grocery stores and retailers, many of which now bar signature gatherers from approaching customers.
As an incentive, one of Paparella’s competitors even promised a $20,000 raffle, with tickets distributed based on how many signatures a person submitted each week.
“Signature gatherers did get paid quite a bit of money,” Paparella said. “But really, truly, while it’s not coal mining, it’s difficult work. And they worked very hard.”
Ecker was able to take about three months off before boredom and another price jump lured him back this week to the 365 by Whole Foods market in Silver Lake. The same L.A. anti-development measure that he’d rejected at $3 a signature in May was now paying $5 a signature.
“I couldn’t really afford to pass that up,” Ecker said with a shrug.
Times staff writer Sophia Bollag contributed to this report.