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Stop Billionaires from Buying Ballot Measures

Fact Sheet



To prevent billionaires and wealthy corporations from highjacking the ballot initiative process to harm consumers and workers. To give everyday people more power by returning the initiative process to its populist roots.



California’s initiative process dates back to 1911, when Governor Hiram Johnson proposed a series of constitutional amendments to give Californians the right to recall elected officials, repeal laws by referendum, and enact statewide laws by initiative.

Voters approved the amendments and have since enacted over 130 ballot measures. In recent years, however, Governor Johnson’s vision of empowered
citizens has been hijacked by wealthy individuals and corporations seeking a tool with which to further an extremist agenda, and the need for reform is clear.

Gone are the days when the initiative process was driven by everyday Californians compelled to act when legislators would not. Petition circulators
were once almost universally unpaid, and signature gathering campaigns failed most often from a lack of volunteers. An inability to qualify was simply a
sign that proponents needed more time to recruit an army of volunteers with which to cultivate sufficient grassroots support. Without both public support and devoted volunteers, campaigns could not generate the required number of petition signatures.

The system, on its own, eliminated proposals that were not ready to become law. That populist system no longer exists. The activists who organized widespread support by devoting time, energy and passion towards a cause have
been replaced; now, wealthy individuals and corporations run the show. These anti-worker, anti-consumer, anti-environment forces crowd the ballot with deceptively written measures designed to line their own pockets at the expense of taxpayers.

Petition circulators are paid up to $7 for each signature, volunteers and/or grassroots support are nowhere to be found, and many circulators openly mislead potential signers.

This deception, sadly, is all but encouraged by our current regulatory framework. For example, current law requires initiative campaigns to submit a certain number of signatures – 5% of all votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election, or 504,670 – in order to qualify for the ballot. These signatures are gathered on petitions that must contain language informing voters of their right to ask whether a circulator is paid or a volunteer, but beyond that minimal disclosure standard, no real restrictions or regulations exist regarding paid circulators.

To legally gather signatures for a ballot measure in California, circulators must only be eligible to register to vote. In practice, this standard is so easily ignored that many – if not most – paid circulators are not even from our state and would not be affected by the measure(s) for which they are gathering signatures.

In addition, petition circulators’ willingness to mislead potential signers is no secret. Paid gatherers are typically paid per signature, which creates a strong incentive to downplay – or openly lie about – the negative impacts of harmful measures.

The end result is a system in which wealthy individuals and powerful corporations dominate the debate, paid circulators openly profit from deception and fraud, and voters struggle to assess the true nature of often intentionally misleading ballot measures. In short, the system has devolved into the exact opposite of what Governor Johnson created over 100 years ago. Now is the time for reform.


What This Bill Will Do

AB 857 (Fong) will require that 20% of all signatures submitted to qualify statewide ballot measures be gathered by volunteer circulators. Paid circulators
may still be used, but ballot measures will only qualify if at least 20% of all valid signatures collected were submitted by those who were not paid for their efforts. This minimum threshold will certify that a measure truly enjoys widespread
grassroots support. Also, by reducing the strong incentive for fraud and deception generated by compensating all circulators a fixed amount per
signature, the 20% volunteer threshold will help protect the integrity of the signature gathering process.

This bill will also establish new training and registration requirements for paid circulators. The Secretary of State is directed to implement a system whereby
paid signature gatherers must be trained in California election law and cannot have been convicted of a criminal offense involving fraud, forgery, identification
theft, or violation of the Elections Code.

AB 857 will invalidate any signatures submitted by a paid circulator who intentionally makes any false statement regarding the proposed initiative. This provision will also prohibit circulators from physically blocking the text of the measure or otherwise preventing potential signers from learning more about the proposal.

Taken together, these reforms will dramatically strengthen the integrity of the process by which proposed ballot measures qualify for the ballot. AB 857 will weaken existing incentives for fraud and deceit while protecting the public interest in transparent and accurate representations of proposed policy.



~ California Labor Federation (Sponsor)


Key Contacts

Mitch Seaman
California Labor Federation
(916) 444-3676 ext. 14