Paid vs. Volunteer Petitioners
Updated June 17, 2010
Professional signature gathering has long been a part of initiative politics. Paid signature gatherers were common in both California and Oregon in the early 1900s. Banning paid signature gatherers was an idea that came about early in the initiative's history, and was seen as a way to stop wealthy individuals or groups from buying their way onto the ballot. Ohio, South Dakota and Washington passed bans on paid signature gatherers in 1913 and 1914. Oregon passed a ban in 1935, Colorado in 1941, and Idaho and Nebraska in 1988. Until the 1980s, courts upheld bans on paid signature gatherers. That changed in 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Colorado's ban in the Meyer vs. Grant, 486 U.S. 414 (1988) decision.
Several states have tried to ban payment per signature, but do permit payment on a salary or hourly basis. These restrictions have met with mixed review in the federal courts. Presently, seven states have such bans (Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota and Oregon) and five states have had them held unconstitutional (Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Ohio and Washington). Most recently, Colorado's restriction was temporarily enjoined on June 11, 2010, awaiting the outcome of a trial.
Today, the vast majority of petition campaigns use paid circulators, who are paid between $1 and $3 per signature. Very few campaigns attempt to qualify an initiative petition with volunteer circulators, and even fewer do so successfully. Paid drives, on the other hand, are much more successful. A campaign that has adequate funds to pay circulators has a nearly 100 percent chance of qualifying for the ballot in many states.
The increase in reliance on paid circulators has increased the cost of qualifying an initiative. In California, it now costs more than $1 million. In Oregon, costs for qualifying ballot measures for the 2000 election ranged from $65,000 to $400,000, with most spending in the neighborhood of $100,000 to $150,000. Average costs in other states generally range between $70,000 and $100,000.
The U.S. Supreme Court's opinions on petition circulators have made the prevention of fraud in the signature gathering process very difficult for states. Since the 1988 Meyer vs. Grant decision invalidated state bans on paid signature gatherers, it has become more difficult to regulate the signature gathering process. The argument that payment for signatures promotes fraud has met with mixed reactions in courts around the country. A federal judge in North Dakota agreed, and upheld North Dakota's ban on payment-per-signature (hourly or salaried payments are permissible in North Dakota). Federal judges in Maine and Washington, however, disagreed, and found no evidence of fraud among paid signature gatherers. Another worthy argument that is less often cited is that prohibiting payment for signatures protects the integrity of the initiative process by encouraging grassroots efforts that can succeed on nothing more than popular support and discourages signature gathering efforts that can succeed only with large sums of money. Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court has removed the ban on paid signature gatherers from initiative reformers' agendas.
Paid/Volunteer Status Must be Disclosed
At least seven states currently require circulators to disclose whether they are paid or volunteer, most often on the petition form itself:
- Arizona: on the petition (ARS §19-102(B) and (C))
- California: on the petition (Elec. Code §101)
- Missouri: in an affidavit filed with the secretary of state (Mo.Rev.Stat. §116.080(2))
- Nebraska: on the petition (NRS §32-628(4))
- Ohio: on the petition (§3519.05)
- Oregon: on the petition (ORS §52.045(5))
- Wyoming: on the petition (Wyo.Stat. §22-24-110(a)(v))
For More Information
For more information on the initiative process, contact Jennie Drage Bowser in NCSL's Denver office.