August 20, 2004

Private: Democracy For Sale: The Signature Gathering Industry

Column By Joel Zuercher, Blog Editor
On August 9, a group of voters from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh filed suit in an attempt to keep Ralph Nader off the November 2 Pennsylvania ballot. The lawsuit challenged the validity of the signatures turned in by the Nader campaign, citing a Democrat-ordered review of the signatures that turned up evidence of forged signatures, missing addresses, incomplete information and signatures from unregistered voters. More ominously, the suit also suggested a "wide-ranging and extensive pattern of false and forged entries, entries obtained through [the] deception of signers, and whole pages of outright forged signatures."
The Nader campaign had drawn unwanted media attention earlier in August, when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the campaign had "abruptly abandoned" it's downtown Philadelphia office. In a raucous street scene the night before, the office had been swarmed with petition circulators, many of them homeless, who were demanding payment they claimed they were owed for circulating petitions on the candidate's behalf. "A lot of us were scammed," collector Ed Seip told the Inquirer. The situation has resulted in a suit filed by Philadelphia labor lawyer and Democratic ward leader Louis Agre. Agre told the Inquirer, "I'm just trying to get people their money. If this was Wal-Mart do you think Ralph would say it was OK? He knows the rules."

The use of paid signature gatherers, though, extends far beyond the Nader campaign and far beyond Philadelphia. Controversy also recently swirled around signatures collected in Washington DC as part of an effort to get an initiative legalizing slot machines on the ballot. Several signature collectors admitted to the Washington Post they were not District residents, violating a D.C. law that all signatures be witnessed by a resident. Furthermore, Dorothy Brizill, head of the non-profit citizen's group DC Watch, alleged that many petition circulators, like in Philadelphia, were recruited at homeless shelters. Angelo Paparella, president of Progressive Campaigns, Inc., a California company hired to run the petition drive, allowed to the Post that some collectors may have been homeless.
There are a growing number of companies like Progressive Campaigns that specialize in turning out armies of paid petitioners. While certainly at odds with traditional grassroots organizing, paid signature gathering has long been a part of initiative politics, despite efforts over time to ban the practice. But companies like Progressive Campaigns and Nevada-based National Voter Outreach have perfected the art of getting any issue on the ballot. National Voter Outreach's scripture-quoting mission statement outlines a commitment to help "any individual, group, or entity to secure ballot status to allow a popular vote on any issue." Led by self-described libertation political mercenary CEO Rick Arnold, the company supports efforts at direct democracy because it believes that, "our system of representative government is in serious trouble. In recent years it has failed to provide basic services with reasonable cost and efficiency: Failed to secure us in our homes and on our streets. Failed to provide an environment conducive to economic prosperity: Failed to guarantee our individual liberties and the collective good."
But how can a signature gathering firm like National Voter Outreach support and further direct democracy, usually thought of as the ability of ordinary citizens to fight for a specific cause through ballot initiatives, when the firm itself is a hired gun with no ties to the community? A fairly outrageous situation involving paid signature gatherers arose in Massachusetts in 2002 when Phoenix-based Ballot Access Company was hired simultaneously by two separate Massachusetts groups to get their initiatives on the ballot. Ballot Access found it easy to get signatures for a measure sponsored by animal rights group Save Our Horses to end the slaughter of horses for human consumption, but harder to convince Massachusetts voters to sign a petition calling for a ban on gay marriage. According to a suit filed by Save Our Horses, since Ballot Access was getting paid more per signature for the gay marriage initiative, signature collectors were instructed to perform a bait-and-switch. Jason Hampton, a Ballot Access signature gatherer, testified via affidavit that since it was "hard" to get marriage petition signatures, his superiors instructed him to talk up the horse slaughter issue to "sell people," and then have unsuspecting voters sign the marriage initiative on a clipboard pre-prepared to be deceptive.
As a result, the gay marriage initiative easily made it onto the ballot while the horse animal rights initiative fell about 2,500 votes short. Almost 1,000 Massachusetts residents, outraged upon learning their signatures were on the marriage initiative, testified in affidavits that they had been misled by signature collectors. Ultimately the judge ruled that unless Save Our Horses could produce 2,500 witnesses they had no recourse. Save Our Horses head Susan Wagner told the AP that the decision ultimately meant, "that fraud (is) fine, this is a tremendous defeat for Massachusetts voters who had their signatures stolen."
Paid signature gathering companies are also firmly linked to the world's largest retailer. Earlier this year Wal-Mart hired a professional firm, National Petition Management, to fight a Contra Costa, California anti-sprawl ordinance limiting the square footage of any new retailer in the county to 90,000. Community groups aligned against Wal-Mart were forced to use whatever resources they could to fight the professionals. "They've got these professional signature-gatherers from out of town. They're basically carpetbaggers," said one anti-Wal-Mart activist. Yet despite the efforts of community groups, Wal-Mart's army of signature gatherers succeeded in placing the referendum on the ballot, and voters then approved Wal-Mart's plan to overturn the town ordinance and allow construction of a new store.

Democracy and Elections