A bill that would ban paying petition signature collectors by the signature faces a tough Judiciary Committee hearing in the coming days following a narrow passage of the bill in another committee earlier this week.
Senate Bill 660, authored by Senator Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) would specifically prohibit a person from paying money or providing any other thing of value based on the number of signatures obtained on a state or local initiative, referendum, or recall petition. Penalties would be severe, with civil penalties costing signature collectors $50 for each signature gathered under the by-signature pay rate or $25,000, whichever one is more. It also instructs the Attorney General to get involved in any violations by bringing civil action.
Senator Newman, who was ousted in a recall election in 2018 over his support for a gasoline tax before narrowly winning his seat back last year, wrote SB 660 in response to many recent petition drives implementing such a pay structure, which he believes leads to inflated supporter signature numbers and bringing an undue number of petitions, recall or otherwise, to the ballot. Combined with the also recently passed-by-committee SB 663, which would provide an elected official who is the subject of a recall election the names and addresses of every voter who signed the petition to “make sure that they “understood the recall petition they may have signed”, Senator Newman is aiming to make recall elections harder to bring about in the future.
“Most elected people don’t think much about the prospect of being recalled,” said Senator Newman of his pair of bills recently. “Every time another one happens, there’s general agreement, ‘That’s not what people had in mind when they created this process.’ But once it’s over, we move on. I think it’s appropriate that we revisit these institutions and make sure they are still working the way they were originally intended.”
However, opposition against SB 660 has also been strong since the bill was introduced in February. Many voter groups, such as the League of Woman Voters and many minority organizations have come out against the bill, noting that the per-signature pay structure is needed for petitions, especially in more localized places and for referendum petitions.
“SB 660 would hurt so many organizations,” explained Ramon Vasquez, a petition consultant who has advised on petition signature gathering in Latino and Mexican-American neighborhoods in Southern California. “They’re trying to make it seem like some sort of great evil, but this sort of pay structure really makes sense. It’s like getting paid on commission or by performance.
“Our goal is to get enough signatures to bring a certain proposition or a recall against someone in office to the ballot. This way, we can ensure enough are gained by motivated petition gatherers. If this was gone, only a flat rate would be paid, and there wouldn’t be any more motivation for some to do more than hang out outside a grocery store all day and sit near the shopping carts hoping to attract people.
“If anything, it helps draw out more people who may have been on the fence to sign the petition, by giving them more information about whatever the petition is about.
“Right now, a common thing we do that has had a lot of success is that one person tells a potential signer outside a grocery store or post office or some place where there is a line at some point and ask them to look up what they are gathering signatures for on their phone. They don’t tell them a specific site or anything, just a basic google to see the issue for themselves and to check to see if what they said was true. Then, on the way out, they’re asked if they would like to sign after learning more about it.
“SB 660 would literally help stop many people from learning about timely political issues. Granted, that’s only one way, but you get the picture. Without incentive, a lot of issues and political problems wouldn’t see the light of day in a general vote. It just sounds like Newman had sour grapes after being recalled and is now trying to make it harder, especially with the Newsom recall now around the corner.”
SB 660 was also passed 3-2 in the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee on Monday, with Republicans and Democrats voting against it, showing signs that members of both parties, not just Republicans, are standing in opposition against it.