Jerry Brown’s decision to mail petitions in support of his tax Increase ballot measure, discussed by George Skelton in a recent column, was made out of fear or desperation.  Fear that the street gathered signatures would fall short of those needed, or desperation because they know there will otherwise be a shortfall.

For Brown the last minute decision to go with a compromise initiative prohibited a choice on the use of direct mail.  However, foolishly for most ballot measure proponents, fear or desperation is now the moving factor in virtually all use of large-scale ballot qualification petition mailings.

Even when time permits, ballot measure proponents rarely even test mailed petitions.  Why? Because it is just so bloody easy to place one call to any of several very capable companies that handle every aspect of paid signature qualification.  For the consultants, no muss, no fuss, virtually no work and probably the same fees will be realized.  And it is an easy sell to the measure’s proponents, as the initial cost of paid signature gathering is often lower. Paid signatures are the conventional, accepted way to go…no need to think or act outside the box.

But the hidden price paid is very dear indeed!

My former partners Arnold Forde and Stu Mollrich and I started using mailed petitions as a first option, and were the first to entirely qualify ballot measures by mail.  The reason we did so was simply because it so much better served our client’s interests.

Why should proponents test mailed petitions as the preferred option and use street gathered signatures only if needed?  Because:

  1. By starting early in a normal qualification cycle, there is time to test message, messenger, donation ask and package design.  This ability to test makes a huge difference in the response to the second and later, much bigger mailings — the rollouts.  By testing, the response rate in the rollout mailings will often be improved by 100% or more.  The perfect donation amount to ask for can be determined and the total positive correlation to signature value can be made with precision and certainty, as can a comparison with the cost of using paid signature gatherers.
  2. The ability to test the impact of robo-calls, television, and radio and internet communications in support of the mailed ballot measure petitions has major benefits.  To the extent that these prove cost effective they can be used statewide to increase the pre-sell of the measure to the entire voter population ahead of the formal election campaign in addition to reducing the cost per sig and increasing the rate of response.
  3. There is time to ask respondents to collect additional signatures for “their” ballot measure.  While the first petition is best with a small number of signature lines, the second mailing to those who care enough to become circulators outside their home can carry more signature lines with no decline in response.  And, these follow up mailings to respondents increase the sense of “ownership of their proposal” by all those who signed the petition in the initial mailing, even if they do not choose to circulate the second or subsequent petitions they receive.
  4. The PR value of gathering all or most of the signatures by volunteers by signers who have had the opportunity to read about the measure at their leisure in their homes before responding, as noted in the Skelton article by the Flash Report’s Jon Fleischman.
  5. Having the time to return to those who make errors in completing the petitions in the initial mailing for corrections.  Depending on the design, errors in completing petitions can be 20% or more.  Even with the best possible design, learned over hundreds of test segments, there will be a significant increase in valid sigs and a reduction in the cost per signature when proponents have the time to re-mail for corrections.
  6. The post-election value of mailing petitions and thereby building a huge supporter list is enormous, often exceeding the total cost of the qualification many times over. It is illegal to use any information that appears on an official state ballot measure qualification petition for any other purpose. However, we developed a legal way to identify those who respond to the mailing.  We do not capture any information on the petition itself, such as the name or address of a signer or circulator.  We do capture the information as to who received the mailing, which was returned…and 99% of the time this is a signer and circulator. This methodology has been used repeatedly, was the subject of a challenge when first used, but the court ruled that our form was perfectly legal and it has never been questioned since. Win or lose in the election itself, the sponsors can raise donations for its causes for years afterward—we added hundreds of thousands of names to the Howard Jarvis supporter list and tens of thousands of donors to the organization’s membership file, many of whom are still giving and working for Prop 13 decades after they signed their initial ballot qualification petition.
  7. Direct mail petition methodology consistently yields at least a 22% higher validity rate than those gathered by paid petition circulators.  This can and often has meant the lower cost commonly quoted for such sigs can be fool’s gold.

Of course, having actually done so much testing, certain things have proven effective repeatedly.  So even those who are forced to utilize mail out of fear or desperation would be wise to consult with those who know and have proven what works best.

For instance, it is easy for me to see several ways in which the Brown mailing cost could have been reduced and the response improved, my guess is that these would have reduced the cost per sig by at least 50%.

One last observation about the idea expressed in the Skelton article by one consultant that direct mail petitions need a “red meat” issue or super star sponsor or both to succeed.  I have had direct mail response rates as high at 15% for measures that had very little voter interest—technical changes in existing Indian Gaming laws, changes in the regulation of rental property and such—with letters signed by little known legislators and other sponsors bearing no resemblance to Arnold’s celebrity status, name ID and his then high level of popularity.  But it takes testing, or at the very least knowing the results of extensive past testing, to achieve positive results without a super star sponsor or “red meat” issue.

Bill Butcher was the co-manager of the Prop 13 campaign for Howard Jarvis and he served for many years as the co-lead and later lead consultant to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association . He was the co-founder and partner of BFC Direct Marketing, which for was for years the biggest issues based political direct mail fundraising company in the nation with as many as 365 million pieces mailed annually.  He is now an independent consultant specializing in citizen activation in support of ballot measures and legislative advocacy campaigns both in California and throughout the U. S. and serves as a Senior Consultant to Burson-Marsteller, a member of WPP plc, the world’s most comprehensive communications services group.