California’s ballot measure process is increasingly recognized as being open to abuse. Wealthy special interest groups can use paid political consultants and paid petition circulators to put measures on the ballot that benefit themselves, rather than California or its citizens. While the voters evenually see through many of these deceptive measures, literally millions of dollars and thousands of hours of volunteer time end up being spent to prevent special interests from taking over state government, and even then the self-serving measures are sometimes successful.
Sadly, it seems unlikely that the legislature will be willing or able to correct the potential for ballot measure abuse. It’s therefore left to us, California’s citizens, to address this problem. Part of the solution, of course, is being more careful about agreeing to sign petitions. Certainly, you should not accept what a paid signature gatherer tells you as the gospel truth. While many, if not most, signature gatherers are well-meaning, they are far from experts on the petitions for which they gather signatures . Mostly, they just regurgitate what the petitions sponsor told them to say. Sometimes they’ll even elaborate beyond that and say things that turn out to be false in an effort to get signatures (and the associated payment). I’ve had signature gatherers tell me things which I knew to be false. (For example a signature gatherer for Oakland’s Kids First II initiative told me that it wouldn’t take away any money from other parts of the city budget.) While making false statements to get petition signatures is a criminal offense (Election Code Section 18600), the DA is unlikely to prosecute such offenses. As California voters, we need to take responsibility for, at the very least, reading and understanding the title and summary before signing a petition. It may take a minute or two, but if everyone did it, less crap would get onto the ballot.
More broadly, we, as voters, need to let signature gatherers know that we hold them to a higher standard. A paid signature gatherer usually carries a half dozen or more petitions at any one time. When you’re approached, take control of the situation. Rather than have him or her present the petitions one at a time, ask to see the whole set. Then look through it and see if there are any offensive or deceptive measures included in the bunch [for example, PG&E’s “right-to-vote” measure, or the oil companies’ currently-circulating petition to suspend California’s global warming law]. If you find one, hand the whole stack back to the circulator and let him or her know that, because you think the specific petition is objectionable or misleading, you’re not going to sign any of his/her petitions. That will hit the signature gatherer in the pocket book. This is essentially similar to the lettuce boycott that UFW did back in the 1960s and 1970s.