Last week, an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee by Justine Sarver of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center urged California legislators to clampdown on the state’s initiative and referendum process by passing a number of new restrictions on the rights of Golden State citizens to petition their government.
Though she acknowledges that the California Legislature is “corporate-controlled,” Ms. Sarver nonetheless suggests that these new legislative attacks are “common-sense reforms.” Common sense? Many of the bills endorsed by Ms. Sarver and her K Street outfit have been struck down in other states as unconstitutional violations of fundamental First Amendment rights.
The first of the two of the bills promoted by Sarver is Senate Bill 448, which would force any person circulating a petition to wear a large badge “on his or her chest” stating “PAID SIGNATURE GATHERER” or “VOLUNTEER SIGNATURE GATHERER.” With the mandated 30-point type size, the sign would take up most of an average person’s chest. The legislation also requires that the badge must state the county in which a circulator is registered to vote or say, “NOT REGISTERED TO VOTE”—even though the law doesn’t require a person circulating a petition to be a registered voter.
Forcing citizens wishing to exercise their most basic rights to wear a sign with a government-mandated message is deeply offensive. The examples of similar laws throughout human history are horrific and totalitarian. Not surprisingly, similar statutes in other states have been struck down in court.
Still, Sarver lauds SB 448 as a way to “increase transparency.” The bill now awaits action in the state assembly, having been passed by California’s state senate.
Sarver also wants legislators to enact Senate Bill 168, which has likewise passed the senate and is pending in the assembly. SB 168 bans paying people who circulate a petition based on the number of signatures they collect. “A daily or hourly wage would eliminate the incentive for fraud,” she claims, “and it would ensure that all groups have equal access to putting an initiative on the ballot, not just those who can pony up sizable bounties.”
Of course, she lacks any factual basis on either point. Requiring that people who circulate petitions be paid on an hourly or daily basis costs far more, not less. As well-known Democratic Party consultant, Joe Trippi wrote in a letter to California legislators, “eliminating the pay-per signature model would remove the incentive to work efficiently and hard – and thus would significantly drive up the cost. This won’t deter well-financed special interests, but it very well could shut the door on genuine, grassroots citizen movements.”
Forcing the cost of gathering enough petitions to qualify a measure for the ballot even higher will not create “equal access” at all, but instead, will make it much more difficult for grassroots groups to use the initiative, while having little impact on big business or the big labor bosses, for whom Ms. Sarver speaks.
Moreover, there is absolutely no evidence that banning per-signature pay will reduce what little fraud has been verified to exist in the petition process. In fact, just last year, a federal judge in Colorado, having heard testimony and seen the evidence on both sides of the issue, enjoined enforcement of Colorado’s partial ban on per-signature pay, concluding that “pay-per-signature compensation is no more likely than pay-per-hour compensation to induce fraudulent signature gathering or to increase invalidity rates.”
Odd that Ms. Sarver’s call for obliterating the petition check Californians have on their government came 796 years to the very day – June 15, 1215 – when the Magna Carta was affirmed on the fields of Runnymede. Though the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center dubs itself a “progressive” organization, it works against the interests of progressives we work with all across the country. Somehow turning on its head eight centuries of progress toward citizens gaining better democratic checks on the politically powerful doesn’t seem like progress.
The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) boasts a board of directors dominated by representatives from the AFL-CIO; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the International Association of Machinists; American Federation of Teachers; United Food and Commercial Workers; National Education Association; and Service Employees International Union. Intriguingly, a list of the group’s directors was recently scrubbed from its website as were long-running advertisements for the political consulting services of five other board members.
BISC has also been active in seeking to diminish initiative rights in other states.
Legislative attacks pushed by BISC have caused Coloradans from across the political spectrum—from tea party and taxpayer groups on the right to Common Cause and Environment Colorado on the left—to bemoan the loss of their initiative rights. One columnist declared the state’s citizen initiative process “dead.” In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Danny Katz, state director of Colorado’s Public Interest Research Group confirmed that “The law definitely has a chilling effect because it’s hard to imagine groups like ours being able to bring measures to the ballot now.”
Meanwhile, BISC awards Colorado’s initiative process the highest grade in the nation! Furthermore, while still ranked best in the country, Colorado’s grade actually dropped from an A to a B after a federal judge ruled that several portions of the 2009 legislation promoted by BISC could not be enforced, since they were likely to be found unconstitutional.
This year, BISC worked unsuccessfully to undermine initiative rights in Washington state, supporting an anti-fraud law that specifically exempted SEIU, the only group in the state found guilty of committing petition fraud in the last decade … and a union represented on BISC’s board of directors.
The group’s 2010 report ominously states, “At BISC, we work day after day to help legislators fix their systems…” Their systems? What about ‘We, the People’?
Let’s hope the BISC “fix” won’t be in.