10/15 - Wealthy special interests rule the initiative process, and elections officials are finding there are no easy fixes - East Valley Tribune: News

10/15 - Wealthy special interests rule the initiative process, and elections officials are finding there are no easy fixes

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Posted: Wednesday, October 15, 2003 7:31 am | Updated: 2:26 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Government by the people carries a high price in Arizona.

Petitioning the government requires cash, and lots of it.

Much of the money goes for hired armies of largely unregulated paid circulators who rarely have any loyalty to the cause.

Rather, the circulators act as mercenaries. They swarm libraries, grocery stores and parking lots hustling registered voters for their signatures, according to political consultants, election officials and some of the circulators themselves.

Almost always, special interests are behind the issue on the petition. They pay big bucks to finance the petition circulation, which ironically was put into the state’s constitution to ensure that common people always have the final say.

In the 2002 general election, special interests paid for all four measures that made the statewide ballot through initiative. Three of the ballot propositions were financed almost exclusively by the gaming industry — two by Indian tribes and the third by horse and dog tracks.

The fourth initiative, to strengthen previously passed initiatives decriminalizing some drug crimes, went forward because three men donated millions of dollars to finance the effort.

The tab for the four state ballot issues exceeded $41 million. More than $3.2 million of that was paid to petition companies to gather enough signatures for the measures to qualify for the ballot, according to spending reports in the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.

The pattern is similar in local elections in the East Valley and throughout Arizona. No issue is too small.

Unions regularly bankroll efforts to block zoning for nonunion Wal-Mart stores, including a 2002 petition drive that led to a referendum in Mesa.

A firefighters union financed a petition initiative this year to force Scottsdale to abandon its contract with the private Rural/Metro Fire Department and switch to a city force.

In 2002, bar owners paid for a petition drive in Tempe to roll back a smoking ban they say has hurt business.

Dentists funded a measure in Mesa to stop flouridation of city water in 2000. A year later, Wal-Mart funded a measure in Gilbert to allow gasoline sales at large retail establishments.

"If you have enough money and you are willing to pay, you can get anything on the ballot," said Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley, who led the battle against the series of drug decriminalization initiatives that were financed almost exclusively by three wealthy individuals.


There is no shortage of critics who decry the role that money now plays in running a petition drive. But the critics offer few solutions.

The U.S. Supreme Court consistently has struck down efforts by states to ban or regulate paid petition circulators. The high court also has voided restrictions on how much money special interest groups can contribute to initiative and referendum campaigns.

States have argued unsuccessfully that they need to restrict paid petitioners to prevent fraud and to hold circulators accountable, said Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, whose office checks petitions for valid signatures.

Purcell also believes people who circulate petitions should have a vested interest in the outcome of the election — something beyond the fee they collect to gather signatures.

In 2002, Oregon voters passed an initiative by a threeto-one margin that requires petition circulators to be paid by the hour, not by the signature.

That initiative was an attempt to curb fraud by lessening the financial incentive to forge signatures, said Patty Wentz of the Voter Education Project, a nonpartisan watchdog group primarily financed by labor unions.

Paying by the signature puts a price on every name a circulator turns in, Wentz said. That creates an incentive for circulators to collect as many names as possible, whether it be through misrepresentation, fraud or forgery, she said.

In the 2002 Arizona general election, the price for a petition signature reached nearly $5, according to political consultants who worked on the gaming campaigns.

"These signature gatherers are usually most likely to be closer to snake-oil salesmen than activists," said Wentz, who was active in the Oregon initiative drive. "The reality is they are doing it for the money. They get paid more money the more people that sign, so their incentive is not the democratic process. It’s cash."

Requiring petition companies to pay their circulators by the hour, rather than by the signature, also is a mechanism to hold the companies more responsible for the signatures they deliver, Wentz said.

In every state except Oregon, petition circulators are considered "independent contractors," not employees of the petition firms. The companies do that to limit their liability for actions of unscrupulous circulators, Wentz said.

Laws similar to the one in Oregon have been adopted in five states — Maine, Mississippi, North Dakota, Washington and Wyoming, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

All five states banned payment to petition circulators on a per-signature basis. But courts have struck down the restriction in Maine, Mississippi and Washington, according to the organization.

Dane Waters, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group based in Virginia, said there is no evidence that changing the way circulators are paid will decrease fraud.

"There is no proof that the petition circulator that is paid by the signature is more likely to commit fraud than somebody paid by the hour, or even a volunteer," Waters said.

Yet it is clear that recent petitions circulated in Tempe by volunteers turned in a higher validity rate than those circulated by paid professionals, said Tempe City Clerk Kathy Matz.

The city has processed three petitions in the past three years: The attempted recall of Mayor Neil Giuliano, the initiative that put the city’s smoking ban on the books and the effort to loosen the smoking ban.

The recall, pushed by volunteers, had a 93.2 percent validity rate. The no-smoking initiative, also carried by volunteers, had an 87 percent validity rate.

In contrast, the petitions to loosen the smoking ban, which were circulated almost entirely by paid petitioners, have been counted twice because of low validity rates. The first count yielded a 61 percent validity rate. The second, a 63 percent rate.


Other efforts to regulate petition circulators also have not fared well.

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down stateimposed requirements that petition circulators be registered voters. Ruling in a Colorado case, the high court concluded that requiring registration amounted to a limit on free speech.

The court also voided regulations in the Colorado case that required paid circulators to wear identification badges; and that the names, addresses and amounts paid to each circulator be disclosed in campaign finance reports.

All of those restrictions imposed "a burden on political expression that the state has failed to justify," the court ruled.

Since the decision in the Colorado case, most states that allow initiatives — including Arizona — have imposed requirements that the petition circulator be eligible to register to vote. That means they must be at least 18 years old and a state resident. People with felony convictions must have had their civil rights restored in order to circulate petitions.

But the residency requirement is virtually unenforceable because it requires only that the person is in Arizona and intends to stay, said Karen Osborne, elections director for the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office.

Waters of the Initiative and Referendum Institute said that attempts to regulate circulators tend to be pushed by state legislators who dislike the initiative process.

In the end, all those laws do is drive up the cost of petition drives, making the process even more the exclusive domain of wealthy special interests, he said. Petition companies that hire circulators will comply with whatever the state requires, Waters said. Wealthy clients can pay for the added cost while true grass-roots campaigns cannot, he said.

Angelo Paparella, owner of Progressive Campaigns of California, which circulated petitions for the Arizona gaming initiative sponsored by the horse and dog racing industry last year, said residency requirements make no sense and will likely be outlawed by the courts in the future.

"The whole thing about the circulator is just a ruse by people who are against the initiative process," said Paparella.


As problematic as it has been to regulate petition circulators, states have found it impossible to limit the amount of money special interest can contribute to initiative campaigns.

Several Supreme Court cases have held that spending money on initiatives is an exercise of free speech, whether it be from corporations, special interest groups or individuals.

The underlying premise of the Supreme Court in striking down restrictions is that they impinge on the First Amendment right to expression. It is permissible to restrict donations to individual candidates because they can be corrupted by special interest money, the court has reasoned. However, money cannot corrupt an issue, the court has consistently ruled.

Well-financed special interests have taken full advantage of their rights.

In the 2002 election, a coalition of 17 Indian tribes fronted virtually all of the $21.2 million spent to pass Proposition 202. That initiative, which expanded Indian gaming, was the only statewide initiative voters ultimately passed.

But the biggest single bankroll in the last general election was the $11.37 million given by the Colorado River Indian Tribes to back Proposition 200, a competing Indian gaming measure.

In the East Valley, big-name unions and corporations have financed many initiative campaigns, spending plenty on paid circulators.

The measure this year to create a Scottsdale municipal fire department was funded largely though firefighters unions and cost $338,000, including $280,000 spent on gathering signatures.

Wal-Mart sank $71,096 into a ballot measure in Gilbert to allow gas sales at larger retail outlets, such as Wal-Mart.

The retail giant also spent $289,024 on a referendum to change Mesa zoning codes so the city could allow a Wal-Mart at McKellips and Greenfield roads.

Jason Rose, a political consultant who has worked on Proposition 200 and dozens of other state and local initiative drives, said money can put an issue on the ballot, but does not guarantee passage. Despite the money spent in the 2002 general election, only Proposition 202 passed, and that was by a narrow margin, he noted.

"It’s the price to pay for the right to debate," Rose said of the high cost of initiative drives. "Since when did debating become a bad thing for voters? Ultimately, the people are deciding whether it’s good or it’s bad."

Mark Osterloh, who has been active in four successful initiative petition drives since 1996, decried the cost of running initiatives. But he said money is a necessary evil.

"Unfortunately, too much of it is bought onto the ballot," Osterloh said. "But thank God you can still bypass the Legislature and in fact you can get laws that are common sense."

Protect yourself

Tips to ensure your signature on initiative petitions counts:

• Do not sign any petition without reading and understanding it.

• Be sure to sign a petition on any issue only once and remember which petitions you’ve signed.

• Do not be bullied into signing a petition.

• Make sure your signature is consistent so it will not be voided when compared with your signature card.

• List your current address, not necessarily the one at which you are registered. Source: Maricopa County Recorder’s Office

Direct democracy

Signature requirements of registered voters needed to place statewide initiative, referendum and recall petitions on the general election ballot:

• Initiative to amend the Arizona Constitution: 15 percent of the total votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. That will be 183,917 signatures in 2004.

• Initiative to amend statutes: 10 percent of the total votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. That will be 122,612 signatures in 2004.

• Referendum to repeal a law passed by the Legislature: 5 percent of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election collected within 90 days of passage. That is 61,306 signatures in 2004.

• Recall of a state official: 25 percent of the votes cast for that office in the previous general election. Number varies by office, but to recall Gov. Janet Napolitano would require 306,528 signatures.

Source: Arizona Secretary of State

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