The Abundance Choice – Part 3: The Mechanics of Ballot Initiatives
Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series on California’s water crisis. You can read the entire series including recent updates in his new book “The Abundance Choice, Our Fight for More Water in California.”
By the spring of 2021, it was obvious the California State Legislature would not change its inadequate approach to water policy. As the state faced another year of drought, restricting water use was the only solution being taken seriously in Sacramento. And at the same time cities were being told to prepare to ration water, farmers faced new regulations restricting not only how much water they could divert from rivers, but also how much groundwater they could pump.
For this reason, and after talking with people all over California whose businesses and jobs depended on a reliable water supply, I decided to form a group of volunteers to promote a ballot initiative that would focus on funding projects to increase California’s supply of water. The tentative name for our campaign, which we eventually adopted, was More Water Now.
The potential for initiatives to fundamentally change the political landscape in California is well documented. The now legendary Proposition 13, approved by voters in 1978, is the classic example. Prop. 13 limited property tax reassessments to two percent per year. And thanks to Prop. 13, if you own your home long enough, eventually property taxes become a manageable burden, instead of an inevitable eviction notice. California is one of 15 U.S. states that allow citizens to gather signatures from registered voters and qualify both statutes and amendments for their state ballot. But to say this is not easy would be an understatement.
In California, petitions proposing initiative statutes must be signed by registered voters and the total signatures collected must equal at least five percent of the total votes cast for the office of governor in the most recent gubernatorial election. For 2022, the threshold is 623,212 signatures, based on the turnout in the 2018 election. But as will be seen, we quickly realized a statute wouldn’t be enough to change water policy in California. We were going to have to ask California’s voters to amend the state constitution.
Using the initiative process to amend the state constitution is a much bigger deal than securing voter approval for a new law. Once the state constitution is revised, existing laws and proposed laws have to conform to the new amendments. And an initiative, whether it is a constitutional amendment or a statute, can only be overturned by subsequent statewide voter approval of a new initiative that repeals it. Because the political impact is so much greater with an amendment, petitions proposing initiative constitutional amendments must collect signatures numbering at least eight percent of the total votes cast for the office of governor in the most recent gubernatorial election. For 2022, that threshold is 997,139 signatures.
As if that were not enough, to ensure the verification process doesn’t turn up so many invalid signatures as to doom the effort, petition proponents typically have to gather at least 30 percent more signatures than the required total. This takes into account the spoilage caused by duplicate signatures, improperly filled-out petitions, and those signatures from people who were not registered to vote. In practice, this means to qualify an initiative constitutional amendment for the state ballot requires at least 1.3 million signatures.
Those are daunting metrics. Filing an initiative is easy enough. Once you’ve written the language, you bring it to the attorney general’s office, pay a $2,000 fee, and submit it for review. The attorney general will prepare a “title and summary” for the initiative, which must appear on the signature petition. The AG’s office then refers the initiative to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which prepares a report on what they estimate to be the financial impact of the initiative. Typically during this phase the state’s legislative analysts ask questions of the initiative proponents. The total review process normally takes 65 calendar days from the date of filing to the date when the initiative is cleared for circulation. And that’s when the fun starts.
On the day we were cleared for circulation, November 1, 2021, our campaign was confronted with a six-month period within which we would need to collect 1.3 million signatures from registered California voters. For the math-inclined, that equates to 7,222 signatures per day. If one assumes a 12-hour day, seven days per week, that’s 602 signatures to be collected every hour, 180 days in a row. We had until April 29 to canvass the state and deliver those numbers.
The sheer logistics of a campaign on such a scale mean that professional consultants have to be involved, including professional signature gatherers. Even Proposition 13 back in 1978, when “only” 449,846 valid voter signatures had to be verified, relied on professional consultants and professional signature gatherers to supplement their mostly volunteer driven campaign. A more recent example of one of the only successful signature gathering campaigns that was mostly volunteer driven was the 2020 attempt to force Governor Gavin Newsom to face a recall election. That recall effort, whether you consider it infamous or merely a healthy expression of democracy, made history with unpaid volunteer signature gatherers contributing well over 1 million of the over 1.6 million validated signatures. But the exception proves the rule.
Normally, the cost for professional signature gatherers is what the market will bear, and a nationwide industry exists to serve initiative campaigns. In California in 2020, the price that was quoted to us by an assortment of credible bidders was around or just under $4 per signature. So the total cost of gathering signatures would be $5.2 million. While that’s the biggest single cost, it doesn’t end there.
Add to this the cost to print petitions, which depending on the size of the petition, can range as high as 20 cents per petition even in quantities in the hundreds of thousands, along with the cost of shipping petitions all over the state. Expect that to add at least another $100,000 to total costs.
There is also the cost of conducting preliminary verification of every signed petition to avoid excessive rejections during the formal verification process, as well as the cost to sort the petitions into bundles to be submitted to each county. With tens of thousands of signatures arriving at a central processing center on any given day, this is also a process that requires professional support. Expect preliminary verification to cost about 35 cents per signature, which pushes costs up by another $450,000 or so. These are just the basic costs.
The chart below summarizes the costs we projected when still in the planning stages of our initiative qualification campaign. The cost per petition ended up being 17 cents each, not 14 cents as we had initially estimated, because the word count grew beyond our expectations, which added to our paper costs. A cost per signature of $3.60 would have been met, I believe, if we had been able to come up with sufficient funding by the day our petition was cleared for circulation. In retrospect, the hybrid effort (column one) that projected 360,000 signatures coming from volunteers was not realistic, although we always showed donors both scenarios, and made it clear that we had a higher confidence in the scenario (column two) that relied exclusively on professional signature gatherers.
For a serious initiative qualification campaign, reality descends on proponents with every passing day. Major factors affecting the total cost come into play very quickly. In particular, a quote that comes in under $4 per signature is something that expires at a rate proportional to how much time is left. To make the November 2022 ballot, initiative petitions need to be submitted no later than June 24. Our deadline, which was April 29, based on our initiative having been cleared for circulation 180 days earlier on November 1, put us just in front of that deadline. This meant we were going to be operating in the thick of initiative season. The longer it took us to raise the funds we needed for signature-gathering, the more it would cost per signature.
The general rule for this year went something like this: With the full six months, your best price per signature will be around $4 each. With five months, expect to pay at least $6 per signature. With four months, expect to pay $8 per signature, and with only three months to work with, expect to pay $10 or more per signature. After that, the task becomes impossible no matter how much you spend, because signature-gathering firms operating at full capacity can rarely deliver more than 150,000 signatures per week.
It wasn’t always this hard, even if it has never been easy to qualify an initiative. Until a few years ago, the cost per signature would escalate according to the same general timeline, but from a much smaller base. Signatures could be gathered for $2 each, or possibly even a bit less, and campaigns that ultimately spent $5 or more per signature were unusual. This changed for several reasons. There was the reality of a more hostile public environment for gathering signatures, including lawsuits by owners of retail stores and other common gathering venues against signature-gathering firms. There was the arrival of companies like Uber and Lyft that were completely indifferent to how much they bid up the price to attract signature gatherers for their initiatives. We had to account for the impact of AB 5, which caused some signature-gathering firms to stop operating in California rather than have to argue in court why their signature gatherers still fit the state’s new definition of “independent contractors.” Finally, of course, there was the COVID-driven transformation of society, which overall finds more people conducting the business and pleasure of life online, and fewer people venturing outside to fewer places less often.
Because signature-gathering has become so expensive, there is a point at which the cost of gathering signatures via direct mail becomes competitive with the cost to pay signature gatherers. Depending on the cost per direct mail piece and the rate of response, that moment of crossover can vary, but the equation is simple algebra.
There are two distinct advantages to direct mail, assuming your petition isn’t a magnum opus that weighs over an ounce and assuming you know your target voter and have done sampling so you have a reliable response projection. First, if necessary, you can wait until much further into the 180-day period to launch your campaign. Unlike professional signature-gathering, that in most practical circumstances is limited to producing 150,000 signatures per week, a mass mailing of several million petitions can go out 30 or 40 days before the deadline, and if enough of them get signed and returned, your initiative will qualify.
The other advantage of direct mail is that it’s a good fundraising opportunity. Anyone willing to open your piece, read your cover letter, unfold and sign your initiative petition and follow all of the instructions is a hot prospect also to enclose a check with a donation. Direct mail campaigns for initiative signatures can defray a meaningful percentage of their costs when they include an appeal for donations in the package they send.
With a certain naiveté, our early strategy was to rely on the virtue of our initiative—which after all was the product of an encouraging consensus we achieved between several key interest groups—along with the credibility of the signature gathering firm from which we had obtained a price for signatures. Our presumption was that by covering these two fundamentals, we had delivered all the necessary basics of an initiative campaign that donors would support. We built a website, commissioned a voter survey by one of the best polling firms in the state, prepared a donor package, and started dialing for dollars. How that played out will be described in later chapters. But a few lessons learned can be shared now.
First, raise money at the same time as you write the initiative. In an ideal world, one of California’s 186 billionaires would agree there is an urgent need for more water infrastructure and write a big check. In reality, whoever ends up funding an initiative campaign is going to want to be involved in writing it. While we did that, we didn’t secure commitments in advance.
Recognize that volunteer-driven efforts depend on tens of thousands of people, each of whom has to be willing to spend hundreds if not thousands of hours sitting in parking lots and parks, in front of shopping centers and libraries, clutching their clipboards filled with blank petitions and accosting passerbys. To get significant numbers of signatures using volunteers requires more than writing an initiative that reflects a popular sentiment that polls well. There has to be a passionate, preexisting grassroots movement of unusual if not historic magnitude. Don’t count on it. Even well-organized volunteer signature gathering efforts rarely collect more than a couple hundred-thousand signatures. Without also hiring a professional signature gathering firm to do the rest of the work, these efforts almost inevitably fail.
If you still want to bypass or at least defray much of the expense of paid signature gatherers, keep the initiative short enough to print on just two sides of a single page. In our case, that was impossible. But the advantages of short petitions are compelling, and the shorter the better. A single page petition can be downloaded from a website by any registered voter, anywhere. They can sign it and mail it to the campaign. They can also print them and circulate them as a volunteer signature gatherer. This eliminates one of the primary logistical obstacles facing volunteer driven initiative campaigns, which is printing and delivering petitions to thousands of volunteers all over California. For direct mail, a short petition, no more than a few pages printed on one folded sheet of paper, can be mailed along with a cover letter and reply envelope and stay under one ounce, greatly reducing postage.
Finally, consider hiring political consultants, because most big donors will not take a campaign seriously that hasn’t engaged a professional political consulting firm. If you really want to win, consider hiring a firm that typically works for Democrats. No initiative in California has a chance of getting voter approval if it isn’t bipartisan, so why not shop for services among the consultant core that knows how to win? California’s Republican consultants, even those among them that do win campaigns, operate in an ecosystem that is a small fraction of the size of California’s Democratic consultant ecosystem. That means far less access to donations and institutional support, and far fewer firms to choose from. Not only are Democratic political consultants better connected politically and financially, and not only do far more of them know how to win and do it all the time, but having one of them working for you puts an imprimatur on your campaign, instead of a stigma.
That’s life in California. Adapt or die.