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Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Problem of Paid Canvassers in the Referendum and Initiative Process

There is a thin line with paid canvassers between aggressive salesmanship and outright browbeating. Actually, I would have to say it is really not that thin a line at all. I remember more than 10 years ago in San Luis Obispo having a variety of problems with paid canvassers who were supposed to be registering Democrats to vote. They got paid for each Democrat they registered but according to the law, they could not prevent a Republican or an Independent from registering. However, that did not stop aggressive and poorly trained canvassers from attempting to coerce people into registering for the Democratic party. Worse yet, one of the canvassers used to register pretty college girls and then call them up for dates.

The other problem I have with paid canvassers is the initiative and referendum process. Established during California's "Progressive Era" it was a means by which to break the stranglehold of the mother of all monied interests, the railroad. However it has evolved into a means by which monied interests can circumvent the legislature and can use their resources to hire paid canvassers to get their petitions on the ballot. A process that is meant to be very democratic has become at times anything but.

In what figures to be an extremely complicated and divisive fight, two casino-owning Indian tribes, a single labor union, and racetracks are backing a referendum to overturn amendments to the compacts that were approved overwhelmingly by both houses of the California Legislature and signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most of California's tribes including the California Nations Indian Gaming Association is opposed to this referendum.

Of course, I do not know anything about this issue yesterday when I am at Farmer's Market. I approach a man at a booth who is collecting signatures for what I believe is going to be an informative discussion about whatever he is attempting to get signatures for. However, the man is brusk from the beginning and quickly turns me toward this Indian Gaming Referendum. I told him that I didn't know anything about the issue. He gave me a rather vague answer about what it did. I responded that I was not comfortable signing anything unless I had read up on it. He said he told me all that I needed to know and that if I supported Indian Tribes, I needed to support this referendum. He told me at this point that all of the Indian Tribes were in favor of this referendum (this would turn out to be an outright lie). I begin to get suspicious and repeat myself more strenuously that I will not sign a petition when I do not know anything about it independently. He then informs me that all my signature does is put the measure on the ballot, and that I can worry about whether or not to vote for it later.

I am sorry but it doesn't work that way, I am not about to use my signature unless I am supportive of the initiative. I walk away, but make a quick phone call to a friend who would know all about this. This friend explained it to me as a huge dogfight and a civil war where a few Indian tribes were trying to overturn the compact that was just signed. My friend was in opposition to it, and so too were several of the local tribes.

At this point I was very upset feeling that I had been lied to, that this individual had tried to browbeat me into signing the petition, and therefore I went back to confront the individual. I get back there, he is talking to another individual but he engages with me. We get into a brief debate and discussion over this. He quickly lost both his cool and his patience. He told me that since he was engaged in trying to get someone to sign a petition, it was illegal for me to interfere and that he could sue me for it or take other legal action.

I am thinking at this point in time, are you kidding? Now I turn from trying to debate him into trying to find out who he was and who was paying him. He told me he only legally had to acknowledge that he was being paid. He gave me names that I believe are not real. This continued for awhile, he would several times threaten to call the police. I don't know what the police would have done. It was a public place, I certainly had as much right to be there as he did.

He was clearly offended about being challenged on his information and his more importantly his tactics. The problem with this process is that he has a larger amount of information than the people he is trying to work with to get their signatures. If he is being aggressive in the manner in which he collects those signatures, if he is trying to browbeat people into just signing and deciding later if they want to vote for this initiative, this process is actually perverted and corrupted. He would repeatedly accuse me for being undemocratic even though he is essentially being paid by huge money interests to get this on the ballot.

The problem with the current process is that groups with money have a huge advantage in gaining signatures. Try using a volunteer process to gain signatures and you will see how difficult it is. It takes a tremendous amount of money to get a measure on the ballot and then even more to win election.

At the end of the day, I don't think the initiative and referendum process has really served California well. Access is too easy. The ballot measures are often poorly written. At times they do not pass constitutional muster. Rarer still are the times when they pass muster and work as designed. California has long been in need of changing this process and this incident really provides just the latest example.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting