Advocates puzzling over signature shortage
San Diego Union-Tribune, 7/12/11 | Read the original article |
The push to reshape the region’s largest school district had all the markings of success: money, influence and the political muscle needed to qualify a measure.
Yet the proposal to add four appointed members to the board of the San Diego Unified School District faltered in the simplest but most fundamental category: signatures.
The petition drive drew too many people who were not registered to vote and too many duplicate signatures. Another problem was the high number of people registered outside the jurisdiction. Along with dealing a sizable setback to the group behind the drive — San Diegans 4 Great Schools — the failure has cast a spotlight on the methods used both to collect and count signatures.
Three other recent campaigns — efforts to repeal medical marijuana restrictions in San Diego, boost city outsourcing in San Diego and impose a transactions and use tax in Lemon Grove — all went to a signature-by-signature count.
“There seems to be kind of a giant aberration here. This just doesn’t happen,” said Scott Himelstein, president of San Diegans 4 Great Schools and director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Educational Policy and Law. “It’s hard to say whether it’s the methodology, the process. Are there shenanigans? I think we’ve got to find out because this definitely impacts the rights of citizens and voters.”
San Diegans 4 Great Schools turned in 129,283 signatures, many more than the 93,085 needed to qualify a charter amendment petition. A hand count found that only 90,027 were valid.
About 11.4 percent were duplicates, said Denise Jenkins, an elections analyst in the San Diego City Clerk’s Office.
Independent contractors on the school group’s effort were paid $1 to $4 per signature.
“A dollar is extremely low compared with other markets in the state,” said Evan McLaughlin, a labor leader whose group opposed the school proposal. “We are doing a lot of work trying to expose the underbelly of this pretty seedy industry as we see several right-wing initiatives going forward.
“These petition gatherers will say anything to get a signature, and that’s been the most visible symptom of an unaccountable industry like this.”
Corinne Wilson, lead research and policy analyst at the labor-backed Center on Policy Initiatives, suggested the state embrace new requirements that prevent signature gatherers from being paid and require them to live in the community.
“Basically, do away with these mercenary payment systems,” she said.
Both San Diegans 4 Great Schools and Councilman Carl DeMaio’s bid to change city contracting and outsourcing hired the La Jolla Group, a political consulting company run by Bob Glaser.
Glaser also worked on gathering 44,116 signatures that could force the city to repeal new restrictions on medical marijuana dispensaries or put the matter on the ballot. The effort needs 31,029 valid signatures, which may be determined today. On Tuesday, Glaser said he would huddle with elections officials in the registrar’s office to get a better handle on why his drives are coming up short.
“It certainly is disappointing,” he said.
In a conversation in May, he told a reporter that the caliber of signatures being collected appeared to be getting weaker — reducing the amount firms like his pay to freelance gatherers.
A recent push bucking the trend came over an 18-day period last year when Roseville-based National Petition Management, Inc., working for Walmart, submitted 53,948 signatures to force the city’s hand in repealing an ordinance requiring a study before supercenters can open.
The drive qualified for the ballot, and the City Council repealed the ordinance rather than pay for an election.
T.J. Zane, committee chairman for a pension reform campaign gathering signatures now, said the group has taken steps to ensure it doesn’t fall short of the signatures needed. The extra layer of protection — in addition to hiring Olson & Associates and the La Jolla Group — involves contracting with National Data Services, a separate verification company, Zane said. The precaution is expected to cost an additional 15 percent to 20 percent.
“That’s something that San Diegans 4 Great Schools probably wishes they had invested in,” he said. “I know DeMaio didn’t do that a year ago.”
The pension measure has until Oct. 16 to collect 94,346 valid signatures to make the ballot.