In the land of California petition circulators, it’s the best of times and the worst of times.

You’ve seen media stories about the best of times. All the competing measures attempting to qualify for the November ballot have pushed up the per-signature rates paid to the circulators – to $5 and $6 and more for statewide initiatives.

Those circulators who are good at their work have been making $1000 or more a day the last couple months. And for those lucky enough to be working the local ballot measures trying to qualify in this environment, the payment can be even bigger. A San Diego charter amendment was paying $15 per signature for a bit. A Cupertino initiative was paying $12 per signature. A San Bernardino marijuana initiative (one of two competing initiatives there) was paying $10 per signature a week ago, when I was in that Inland Empire city.

All that money sounds good. But more money creates more problems—and people in the circulation business are feeling it.

The competition for signatures makes it harder to get signatures. All the money being paid adds to the pressure. And the high-pressure season got extended when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a self-serving piece of legislation that not only provided more money to county clerks but also gave all initiatives (including his own sentencing reform measure) an extra month to quality

The application of technology to the signature gathering process also has made things harder. Petition companies are now checking every single signature (they used to use random samples), and often insisting that circulators use programs on their cell phones to check the validity of signatures as they get them. This is obviously a good thing for validity—but slows down gathering.

This also has created what some circulators describe as the new scourge of the circulation game: Chargebacks. You may have heard of “chargebacks” in the context of credit card fraud; it refers to the times when credit card companies charge retailers for fraudulent transactions that the retailers let go through.

Chargebacks mean something similar in ballot initiative signature gathering. Petition companies want to pay their signature coordinators in each region quickly, and those coordinators want to pay their circulators quickly – so that everyone is happy. But when the technology checks find duplicate signatures or errors on a petition, the petition companies (and initiative sponsors who hire them) demand a chargeback—essentially a refund on what was paid out for signatures that didn’t count.

Typically, chargebacks don’t amount to very much money, and coordinators handle them without too much difficulty. But nothing is typical about this initiative season. There are so many signatures—and the signatures pay so much—that chargebacks can often run into the tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands of dollars). That can lead signature coordinators holding the bag. $5 and $10 and $15 signatures thus create real turmoil and anxiety and cash flow problems for people working in the industry.

In recent weeks, I’ve been hearing from people in the signature game waxing nostalgic about less crazy seasons at $2 or $3 a signature.

What to do? Real initiative reform should offer ways to get measures on the ballot without signatures (maybe you could convince a citizens’ commission of the wisdom of your idea – I know, crazy to think that the quality of an idea should determine anything). And we should stop putting all statewide measures on the same November ballot.