Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My Problem with Petition Signature-Gatherers

I teach at Fullerton College and Cal State Fullerton. Increasingly often, I see people on the campus soliciting students to sign petitions for ballot initiatives (Propositions). A certain number of signatures is required to put a Proposition on the California ballot. Signature-gathering for ballot measures is part of our democratic process here in California. However, the problem with randomly soliciting signatures from strangers is twofold:

1.)The signature-gatherer’s approach is often to grossly generalize and over-simplify the content of the ballot measure. They will ask random passers-by loaded questions like, “Do you want to lower car insurance rates?” or “Do you want a greener California?” or “Do you want to stop human trafficking?” Most people would answer “yes” to these questions. However, the full text of the ballot measure is usually far lengthier and more complex that those questions. Today, I was accosted by a signature-gatherer and, when I asked to read the full text of the propositions he was gathering signatures for, he showed me pages and pages of small print. I told him, “I’m sorry. I would want to fully understand what I’m putting my signature on and, frankly, I don’t have the time right now to read all that text. “ He seemed shocked that I wasn’t satisfied with his one-sentence explanations.

2.)Petition signature-gatherers, by and large, get paid per signature, sometimes around $5 a signature. They are rarely, if ever, gathering signatures because they simply believe in the ballot measures they are helping put on the ballot. They are usually doing it for a pay check, so some of the more unscrupulous ones, like the gentleman I met today, will say whatever it takes to get you to sign your name, regardless of the real-world consequences of the ballot measures. Consequently, some really bone-headed ballot measures often get on the ballot. Big corporations like to use this tactic to get a proposition that will benefit them on the ballot, like Prop 16 in the last election, which would have given Pacific Gas & Electric a near monopoly on California utilities. I’m sure the signature-gatherers got that one on the ballot by asking, “Do you want lower electric bills?”

For these reasons, I pretty much never sign petitions from random signature-gatherers, and I actually view them as kind of a threat to democracy. If there is a ballot measure that comes along that I really believe in, I will research it fully before signing my name to put it on the ballot.

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