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The murky politics of petitions: how signature gathering & threats of identity theft play into initiative reform

Chicago Cubs fan Tony Medina signs a petition urging the team to move their spring training camp out of Arizona.
Chicago Cubs fan Tony Medina signs a petition urging the team to move their spring training camp out of Arizona.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

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The radio advertisements are ominous in their tone and message—sign a petition to place a proposition on California’s ballot and you are exposing yourself to possible identity theft and fraud. While it sounds like a public service message there’s something more political in nature behind these ads and a larger debate over the role of signature gatherers in California’s initiative system. The State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, a labor union coalition, is sponsoring the radio ads and claiming that they are simply warnings about “the seamy underbelly of paid signature collectors and the abuses that can occur,” according to the group Californians Against Identity Theft that’s mentioned in the ad. It probably isn’t a coincidence that there are several proposed initiatives for the 2012 ballot, currently gathering signatures on petitions, that would target unions by banning collective bargaining and reforming public employee pensions. There was another attempt to curtail the activities of paid signature collectors in Sacramento, this time in the form of a bill that passed through the legislature but was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. SB 168 would have made it a misdemeanor for any person to pay or receive money for collecting signatures on state or local initiatives and referendum based on the number of signatures collected.

It’s always a little disconcerting to be approached by a signature collector when you’re walking into the grocery store or bank—it’s usually hard to gauge exactly what you’re signing or the goal of the initiative that you’re helping to get on the ballot. But petitions for propositions are the linchpin of direct democracy in California. Should signature gatherers be more closely monitored and do you sign petitions when you’re asked?


Shaun Bowler, professor & chair of the political science department at the University of California, Riverside