The Problem of Paid Canvassers in the Referendum and Initiative Process

There is a thin line with paid canvassers between aggressive salesmanship and outright browbeating. Actually, I would have to say it is really not that thin a line at all. I remember more than 10 years ago in San Luis Obispo having a variety of problems with paid canvassers who were supposed to be registering Democrats to vote. They got paid for each Democrat they registered but according to the law, they could not prevent a Republican or an Independent from registering. However, that did not stop aggressive and poorly trained canvassers from attempting to coerce people into registering for the Democratic party. Worse yet, one of the canvassers used to register pretty college girls and then call them up for dates.

The other problem I have with paid canvassers is the initiative and referendum process. Established during California’s “Progressive Era” it was a means by which to break the stranglehold of the mother of all monied interests, the railroad. However it has evolved into a means by which monied interests can circumvent the legislature and can use their resources to hire paid canvassers to get their petitions on the ballot. A process that is meant to be very democratic has become at times anything but.

In what figures to be an extremely complicated and divisive fight, two casino-owning Indian tribes, a single labor union, and racetracks are backing a referendum to overturn amendments to the compacts that were approved overwhelmingly by both houses of the California Legislature and signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most of California’s tribes including the California Nations Indian Gaming Association is opposed to this referendum.

Of course, I do not know anything about this issue yesterday when I am at Farmer’s Market. I approach a man at a booth who is collecting signatures for what I believe is going to be an informative discussion about whatever he is attempting to get signatures for. However, the man is brusk from the beginning and quickly turns me toward this Indian Gaming Referendum. I told him that I didn’t know anything about the issue. He gave me a rather vague answer about what it did. I responded that I was not comfortable signing anything unless I had read up on it. He said he told me all that I needed to know and that if I supported Indian Tribes, I needed to support this referendum. He told me at this point that all of the Indian Tribes were in favor of this referendum (this would turn out to be an outright lie). I begin to get suspicious and repeat myself more strenuously that I will not sign a petition when I do not know anything about it independently. He then informs me that all my signature does is put the measure on the ballot, and that I can worry about whether or not to vote for it later.

I am sorry but it doesn’t work that way, I am not about to use my signature unless I am supportive of the initiative. I walk away, but make a quick phone call to a friend who would know all about this. This friend explained it to me as a huge dogfight and a civil war where a few Indian tribes were trying to overturn the compact that was just signed. My friend was in opposition to it, and so too were several of the local tribes.

At this point I was very upset feeling that I had been lied to, that this individual had tried to browbeat me into signing the petition, and therefore I went back to confront the individual. I get back there, he is talking to another individual but he engages with me. We get into a brief debate and discussion over this. He quickly lost both his cool and his patience. He told me that since he was engaged in trying to get someone to sign a petition, it was illegal for me to interfere and that he could sue me for it or take other legal action.

I am thinking at this point in time, are you kidding? Now I turn from trying to debate him into trying to find out who he was and who was paying him. He told me he only legally had to acknowledge that he was being paid. He gave me names that I believe are not real. This continued for awhile, he would several times threaten to call the police. I don’t know what the police would have done. It was a public place, I certainly had as much right to be there as he did.

He was clearly offended about being challenged on his information and his more importantly his tactics. The problem with this process is that he has a larger amount of information than the people he is trying to work with to get their signatures. If he is being aggressive in the manner in which he collects those signatures, if he is trying to browbeat people into just signing and deciding later if they want to vote for this initiative, this process is actually perverted and corrupted. He would repeatedly accuse me for being undemocratic even though he is essentially being paid by huge money interests to get this on the ballot.

The problem with the current process is that groups with money have a huge advantage in gaining signatures. Try using a volunteer process to gain signatures and you will see how difficult it is. It takes a tremendous amount of money to get a measure on the ballot and then even more to win election.

At the end of the day, I don’t think the initiative and referendum process has really served California well. Access is too easy. The ballot measures are often poorly written. At times they do not pass constitutional muster. Rarer still are the times when they pass muster and work as designed. California has long been in need of changing this process and this incident really provides just the latest example.

—Doug Paul Davis reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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40 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    I make it a policy not to sign any petition that I don’t study beforehand. I believe that the signature means I support it and the whole point in collecting signatures is to show that a cause has enough support to warrant spending the money to make it part of a ballot.

    I particularly shy away from anything to do with Indian Gaming, unless it involves the local tribe. Too much money involved, too much greed is at play, in my mind.

    I particularly am careful with people who have multiple causes, up to 8 or 10 different petitions that they are collecting for, who aggressively go after you to sign. It is easy to see that this is how they are making a living and I cannot begrudge them that, but I steel myself against signing something just because the person needs the money.

  2. Anonymous

    I make it a policy not to sign any petition that I don’t study beforehand. I believe that the signature means I support it and the whole point in collecting signatures is to show that a cause has enough support to warrant spending the money to make it part of a ballot.

    I particularly shy away from anything to do with Indian Gaming, unless it involves the local tribe. Too much money involved, too much greed is at play, in my mind.

    I particularly am careful with people who have multiple causes, up to 8 or 10 different petitions that they are collecting for, who aggressively go after you to sign. It is easy to see that this is how they are making a living and I cannot begrudge them that, but I steel myself against signing something just because the person needs the money.

  3. Anonymous

    I make it a policy not to sign any petition that I don’t study beforehand. I believe that the signature means I support it and the whole point in collecting signatures is to show that a cause has enough support to warrant spending the money to make it part of a ballot.

    I particularly shy away from anything to do with Indian Gaming, unless it involves the local tribe. Too much money involved, too much greed is at play, in my mind.

    I particularly am careful with people who have multiple causes, up to 8 or 10 different petitions that they are collecting for, who aggressively go after you to sign. It is easy to see that this is how they are making a living and I cannot begrudge them that, but I steel myself against signing something just because the person needs the money.

  4. Anonymous

    I make it a policy not to sign any petition that I don’t study beforehand. I believe that the signature means I support it and the whole point in collecting signatures is to show that a cause has enough support to warrant spending the money to make it part of a ballot.

    I particularly shy away from anything to do with Indian Gaming, unless it involves the local tribe. Too much money involved, too much greed is at play, in my mind.

    I particularly am careful with people who have multiple causes, up to 8 or 10 different petitions that they are collecting for, who aggressively go after you to sign. It is easy to see that this is how they are making a living and I cannot begrudge them that, but I steel myself against signing something just because the person needs the money.

  5. Anonymous

    I agree completely with the first person’s post here. You always have concerns about motivations but it’s hard to begrudge people making a living. OTOH, it sounds clear that this person crossed a line. For those who know David, agree or disagree he’s general congenial and mellow (almost the opposite of his on-line persona).

  6. Anonymous

    I agree completely with the first person’s post here. You always have concerns about motivations but it’s hard to begrudge people making a living. OTOH, it sounds clear that this person crossed a line. For those who know David, agree or disagree he’s general congenial and mellow (almost the opposite of his on-line persona).

  7. Anonymous

    I agree completely with the first person’s post here. You always have concerns about motivations but it’s hard to begrudge people making a living. OTOH, it sounds clear that this person crossed a line. For those who know David, agree or disagree he’s general congenial and mellow (almost the opposite of his on-line persona).

  8. Anonymous

    I agree completely with the first person’s post here. You always have concerns about motivations but it’s hard to begrudge people making a living. OTOH, it sounds clear that this person crossed a line. For those who know David, agree or disagree he’s general congenial and mellow (almost the opposite of his on-line persona).

  9. Rich Rifkin

    A bigger problem than the one David points out about signature gathering is the inflexibility of making laws by initiative. If a measure is approved by the voters — which tends to be uncommon, as a percentage of all measures attempted to be put on the ballot — it cannot be amended by the legislature, even if it contains an aspect or two which the vast majority of people do not support. Yet that aspect cannot be reversed, unless a new initiative is written, approved for the ballot and supported by a majority of voters. That just doesn’t happen. So we must live with very flawed laws, such as the aspect of Prop 13 which disallows properly appraising commercial properties for purposes of property taxes. This not only starves the state of some needed revenues, but it causes owners of commercial properties to hold onto them when that is an uneconomical decision. There are countless other examples. My preference would be to get rid of the initiative process altogether.

  10. Rich Rifkin

    A bigger problem than the one David points out about signature gathering is the inflexibility of making laws by initiative. If a measure is approved by the voters — which tends to be uncommon, as a percentage of all measures attempted to be put on the ballot — it cannot be amended by the legislature, even if it contains an aspect or two which the vast majority of people do not support. Yet that aspect cannot be reversed, unless a new initiative is written, approved for the ballot and supported by a majority of voters. That just doesn’t happen. So we must live with very flawed laws, such as the aspect of Prop 13 which disallows properly appraising commercial properties for purposes of property taxes. This not only starves the state of some needed revenues, but it causes owners of commercial properties to hold onto them when that is an uneconomical decision. There are countless other examples. My preference would be to get rid of the initiative process altogether.

  11. Rich Rifkin

    A bigger problem than the one David points out about signature gathering is the inflexibility of making laws by initiative. If a measure is approved by the voters — which tends to be uncommon, as a percentage of all measures attempted to be put on the ballot — it cannot be amended by the legislature, even if it contains an aspect or two which the vast majority of people do not support. Yet that aspect cannot be reversed, unless a new initiative is written, approved for the ballot and supported by a majority of voters. That just doesn’t happen. So we must live with very flawed laws, such as the aspect of Prop 13 which disallows properly appraising commercial properties for purposes of property taxes. This not only starves the state of some needed revenues, but it causes owners of commercial properties to hold onto them when that is an uneconomical decision. There are countless other examples. My preference would be to get rid of the initiative process altogether.

  12. Rich Rifkin

    A bigger problem than the one David points out about signature gathering is the inflexibility of making laws by initiative. If a measure is approved by the voters — which tends to be uncommon, as a percentage of all measures attempted to be put on the ballot — it cannot be amended by the legislature, even if it contains an aspect or two which the vast majority of people do not support. Yet that aspect cannot be reversed, unless a new initiative is written, approved for the ballot and supported by a majority of voters. That just doesn’t happen. So we must live with very flawed laws, such as the aspect of Prop 13 which disallows properly appraising commercial properties for purposes of property taxes. This not only starves the state of some needed revenues, but it causes owners of commercial properties to hold onto them when that is an uneconomical decision. There are countless other examples. My preference would be to get rid of the initiative process altogether.

  13. Doug Paul Davis

    Rich: I am in agreement with you here. I see it as a function of the same basic process however. You have a system set up where legislation that is as you say binding is difficult to change and can be pushed through with large amounts of capital behind it and it takes equally large amounts of capital to defeat these measures. It seems to me perpetuating the same problem that the original system wanted to reform. I’m not sure I would be completely comfortable with doing away with the initiative process, but I don’t really have a good answer either.

  14. Doug Paul Davis

    Rich: I am in agreement with you here. I see it as a function of the same basic process however. You have a system set up where legislation that is as you say binding is difficult to change and can be pushed through with large amounts of capital behind it and it takes equally large amounts of capital to defeat these measures. It seems to me perpetuating the same problem that the original system wanted to reform. I’m not sure I would be completely comfortable with doing away with the initiative process, but I don’t really have a good answer either.

  15. Doug Paul Davis

    Rich: I am in agreement with you here. I see it as a function of the same basic process however. You have a system set up where legislation that is as you say binding is difficult to change and can be pushed through with large amounts of capital behind it and it takes equally large amounts of capital to defeat these measures. It seems to me perpetuating the same problem that the original system wanted to reform. I’m not sure I would be completely comfortable with doing away with the initiative process, but I don’t really have a good answer either.

  16. Doug Paul Davis

    Rich: I am in agreement with you here. I see it as a function of the same basic process however. You have a system set up where legislation that is as you say binding is difficult to change and can be pushed through with large amounts of capital behind it and it takes equally large amounts of capital to defeat these measures. It seems to me perpetuating the same problem that the original system wanted to reform. I’m not sure I would be completely comfortable with doing away with the initiative process, but I don’t really have a good answer either.

  17. 無名 - wu ming

    yup. while i still think referendums are worth having, for cases like medical marijuana where legislators refuse to act on issues with broad popular appeal, there needs to be some reform of the process.

    three that i can think of right off the bat are forbidding out of state funds either for or against an initiative, requiring a much larger # of signatures than currently is the case, and mandating that only unpaid volunteers gather signatures. that way, somehting would really have to have an in-state popular groundswell to motivate enough people to sign on.

  18. 無名 - wu ming

    yup. while i still think referendums are worth having, for cases like medical marijuana where legislators refuse to act on issues with broad popular appeal, there needs to be some reform of the process.

    three that i can think of right off the bat are forbidding out of state funds either for or against an initiative, requiring a much larger # of signatures than currently is the case, and mandating that only unpaid volunteers gather signatures. that way, somehting would really have to have an in-state popular groundswell to motivate enough people to sign on.

  19. 無名 - wu ming

    yup. while i still think referendums are worth having, for cases like medical marijuana where legislators refuse to act on issues with broad popular appeal, there needs to be some reform of the process.

    three that i can think of right off the bat are forbidding out of state funds either for or against an initiative, requiring a much larger # of signatures than currently is the case, and mandating that only unpaid volunteers gather signatures. that way, somehting would really have to have an in-state popular groundswell to motivate enough people to sign on.

  20. 無名 - wu ming

    yup. while i still think referendums are worth having, for cases like medical marijuana where legislators refuse to act on issues with broad popular appeal, there needs to be some reform of the process.

    three that i can think of right off the bat are forbidding out of state funds either for or against an initiative, requiring a much larger # of signatures than currently is the case, and mandating that only unpaid volunteers gather signatures. that way, somehting would really have to have an in-state popular groundswell to motivate enough people to sign on.

  21. 無名 - wu ming

    wow, i’m surprised and pleased that we agree on the commercial side of prop 13, rich. to that point you just made, i will also ppint out that unlike human property owners, corporate property owners never die, so the tax levels are locked in forever.

  22. 無名 - wu ming

    wow, i’m surprised and pleased that we agree on the commercial side of prop 13, rich. to that point you just made, i will also ppint out that unlike human property owners, corporate property owners never die, so the tax levels are locked in forever.

  23. 無名 - wu ming

    wow, i’m surprised and pleased that we agree on the commercial side of prop 13, rich. to that point you just made, i will also ppint out that unlike human property owners, corporate property owners never die, so the tax levels are locked in forever.

  24. 無名 - wu ming

    wow, i’m surprised and pleased that we agree on the commercial side of prop 13, rich. to that point you just made, i will also ppint out that unlike human property owners, corporate property owners never die, so the tax levels are locked in forever.

  25. Great and Small

    Rich-
    The legislature can change the non-constitution-amending laws that are passed by initiatives with bills. However, these bills are diffcult to push through as they can be denounced as “going against the will of Californians”.

    The problem with the consitutional amendment initiatives is that while it takes a majority to pass them, it takes a 2/3 vote to repeal them.

  26. Great and Small

    Rich-
    The legislature can change the non-constitution-amending laws that are passed by initiatives with bills. However, these bills are diffcult to push through as they can be denounced as “going against the will of Californians”.

    The problem with the consitutional amendment initiatives is that while it takes a majority to pass them, it takes a 2/3 vote to repeal them.

  27. Great and Small

    Rich-
    The legislature can change the non-constitution-amending laws that are passed by initiatives with bills. However, these bills are diffcult to push through as they can be denounced as “going against the will of Californians”.

    The problem with the consitutional amendment initiatives is that while it takes a majority to pass them, it takes a 2/3 vote to repeal them.

  28. Great and Small

    Rich-
    The legislature can change the non-constitution-amending laws that are passed by initiatives with bills. However, these bills are diffcult to push through as they can be denounced as “going against the will of Californians”.

    The problem with the consitutional amendment initiatives is that while it takes a majority to pass them, it takes a 2/3 vote to repeal them.

  29. Rich Rifkin

    “i’m surprised and pleased that we agree on the commercial side of prop 13, rich”

    I don’t fully oppose Prop 13. I think for non-commercial homeowners, it is a good idea to not allow property taxes to rise year after year too fast. From 2000-2005, that would have happened in Davis (and most of California, with the great real estate bubble). Because this provision of Prop 13 has benefitted me, my opinion is not without self interest in mind.

    However, I do think the inflator in Prop 13 is too low. I would allow annual property tax increases equal to 3%, which is the normal annual inflation rate in the U.S. economy….

    I would also allow local governments to increase local taxes based on real property value, which is outlawed by Prop 13 (I believe). Because we cannot now do that, we get these stupid parcel tax measures, which are really unfair (in my opinion). A homeowner in central Davis, far from most parks and all the greenbelts, whose home and lot may be quite small, has to pay the same parcel tax for parks and greenbelt maintenance as does the mansion owner on Avocet Avenue in North Davis, because of this law. And because the guy on Avocet is right next to a park, his property clearly benefits more from this tax than does the cottage owner in the core area.

    Finally, I don’t completely buy the argument that Prop 13 is unfair because one 3/2 1800 s.f. house bought in 1985 pays so much less in property tax than the next door 3/2 1800 s.f. house which sold in 2005. Yes, it isn’t completely fair. But each homeowner bought his house with full knowledge of what the property tax situation would be going in. As such, the far higher taxes for the 2005 buyer are factored into the purchase price.

  30. Rich Rifkin

    “i’m surprised and pleased that we agree on the commercial side of prop 13, rich”

    I don’t fully oppose Prop 13. I think for non-commercial homeowners, it is a good idea to not allow property taxes to rise year after year too fast. From 2000-2005, that would have happened in Davis (and most of California, with the great real estate bubble). Because this provision of Prop 13 has benefitted me, my opinion is not without self interest in mind.

    However, I do think the inflator in Prop 13 is too low. I would allow annual property tax increases equal to 3%, which is the normal annual inflation rate in the U.S. economy….

    I would also allow local governments to increase local taxes based on real property value, which is outlawed by Prop 13 (I believe). Because we cannot now do that, we get these stupid parcel tax measures, which are really unfair (in my opinion). A homeowner in central Davis, far from most parks and all the greenbelts, whose home and lot may be quite small, has to pay the same parcel tax for parks and greenbelt maintenance as does the mansion owner on Avocet Avenue in North Davis, because of this law. And because the guy on Avocet is right next to a park, his property clearly benefits more from this tax than does the cottage owner in the core area.

    Finally, I don’t completely buy the argument that Prop 13 is unfair because one 3/2 1800 s.f. house bought in 1985 pays so much less in property tax than the next door 3/2 1800 s.f. house which sold in 2005. Yes, it isn’t completely fair. But each homeowner bought his house with full knowledge of what the property tax situation would be going in. As such, the far higher taxes for the 2005 buyer are factored into the purchase price.

  31. Rich Rifkin

    “i’m surprised and pleased that we agree on the commercial side of prop 13, rich”

    I don’t fully oppose Prop 13. I think for non-commercial homeowners, it is a good idea to not allow property taxes to rise year after year too fast. From 2000-2005, that would have happened in Davis (and most of California, with the great real estate bubble). Because this provision of Prop 13 has benefitted me, my opinion is not without self interest in mind.

    However, I do think the inflator in Prop 13 is too low. I would allow annual property tax increases equal to 3%, which is the normal annual inflation rate in the U.S. economy….

    I would also allow local governments to increase local taxes based on real property value, which is outlawed by Prop 13 (I believe). Because we cannot now do that, we get these stupid parcel tax measures, which are really unfair (in my opinion). A homeowner in central Davis, far from most parks and all the greenbelts, whose home and lot may be quite small, has to pay the same parcel tax for parks and greenbelt maintenance as does the mansion owner on Avocet Avenue in North Davis, because of this law. And because the guy on Avocet is right next to a park, his property clearly benefits more from this tax than does the cottage owner in the core area.

    Finally, I don’t completely buy the argument that Prop 13 is unfair because one 3/2 1800 s.f. house bought in 1985 pays so much less in property tax than the next door 3/2 1800 s.f. house which sold in 2005. Yes, it isn’t completely fair. But each homeowner bought his house with full knowledge of what the property tax situation would be going in. As such, the far higher taxes for the 2005 buyer are factored into the purchase price.

  32. Rich Rifkin

    “i’m surprised and pleased that we agree on the commercial side of prop 13, rich”

    I don’t fully oppose Prop 13. I think for non-commercial homeowners, it is a good idea to not allow property taxes to rise year after year too fast. From 2000-2005, that would have happened in Davis (and most of California, with the great real estate bubble). Because this provision of Prop 13 has benefitted me, my opinion is not without self interest in mind.

    However, I do think the inflator in Prop 13 is too low. I would allow annual property tax increases equal to 3%, which is the normal annual inflation rate in the U.S. economy….

    I would also allow local governments to increase local taxes based on real property value, which is outlawed by Prop 13 (I believe). Because we cannot now do that, we get these stupid parcel tax measures, which are really unfair (in my opinion). A homeowner in central Davis, far from most parks and all the greenbelts, whose home and lot may be quite small, has to pay the same parcel tax for parks and greenbelt maintenance as does the mansion owner on Avocet Avenue in North Davis, because of this law. And because the guy on Avocet is right next to a park, his property clearly benefits more from this tax than does the cottage owner in the core area.

    Finally, I don’t completely buy the argument that Prop 13 is unfair because one 3/2 1800 s.f. house bought in 1985 pays so much less in property tax than the next door 3/2 1800 s.f. house which sold in 2005. Yes, it isn’t completely fair. But each homeowner bought his house with full knowledge of what the property tax situation would be going in. As such, the far higher taxes for the 2005 buyer are factored into the purchase price.

  33. Rich Rifkin

    “My preference would be to get rid of the initiative process altogether.”

    I overstated that. I would still allow propositions of two kinds: 1) amendments to the state constitution which affect process, such as how we elect legislators, the size of our legislature, or similar things — these should probably require 2/3rds to pass; and 2) directional polls of the voters, such as we had with the measure in Davis which asked voters if they preferred choice voting. I would not mind having the state formally poll voters on directional questions and then allow the legislature to implement the will of the people.

  34. Rich Rifkin

    “My preference would be to get rid of the initiative process altogether.”

    I overstated that. I would still allow propositions of two kinds: 1) amendments to the state constitution which affect process, such as how we elect legislators, the size of our legislature, or similar things — these should probably require 2/3rds to pass; and 2) directional polls of the voters, such as we had with the measure in Davis which asked voters if they preferred choice voting. I would not mind having the state formally poll voters on directional questions and then allow the legislature to implement the will of the people.

  35. Rich Rifkin

    “My preference would be to get rid of the initiative process altogether.”

    I overstated that. I would still allow propositions of two kinds: 1) amendments to the state constitution which affect process, such as how we elect legislators, the size of our legislature, or similar things — these should probably require 2/3rds to pass; and 2) directional polls of the voters, such as we had with the measure in Davis which asked voters if they preferred choice voting. I would not mind having the state formally poll voters on directional questions and then allow the legislature to implement the will of the people.

  36. Rich Rifkin

    “My preference would be to get rid of the initiative process altogether.”

    I overstated that. I would still allow propositions of two kinds: 1) amendments to the state constitution which affect process, such as how we elect legislators, the size of our legislature, or similar things — these should probably require 2/3rds to pass; and 2) directional polls of the voters, such as we had with the measure in Davis which asked voters if they preferred choice voting. I would not mind having the state formally poll voters on directional questions and then allow the legislature to implement the will of the people.

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