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Ragtag Army: Life getting harder for paid petition circulators

Professional signature gatherer Steve Martin, a north Phoenix resident, collects signatures in Peoria in late May. Martin, 53, says because of increasing regulations governing the practice in Arizona, collecting signatures used to be a much more lucrative endeavor than it is today. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Professional signature gatherer Steve Martin, a north Phoenix resident, collects signatures in Peoria in late May. Martin, 53, says because of increasing regulations governing the practice in Arizona, collecting signatures used to be a much more lucrative endeavor than it is today. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

He has been chased from two shopping centers already, and if Steve Martin is kicked out of this one, he won’t earn any money today.

He sits on a cement bench between a Chipotle and a Paradise Bakery & Café in Peoria, protected from the glaring sun by a white hat with protective flaps and a bottle of water attached to a lanyard slung over his shoulder.

He grips his clipboard as he eyes the security crew in the golf cart driving slowly past.

To make a buck in the world of Arizona politics, the 53-year-old Martin has to be constantly vigilant, dodging security guards and staying one step ahead of the police.

When he finally finds a place with plenty of foot traffic and no security, he often encounters others just like him who have laid claim to the space. With access to workable plots of land limited, shouting matches sometimes ensue.

It didn’t used to be so difficult for professional petition circulators like Martin.

But changes to state law and business policies have made life harder for petition circulators and at times forced the signature gatherers to go underground in their search for registered voters.

With the increased difficulty of gathering signatures, the price of qualifying for the ballot has increased, making it more difficult and more expensive for candidates to qualify, or for citizens to exercise their rights to direct democracy via the initiative process.

The result is that citizens may have fewer choices on the ballot, and though candidates are paying more per signature, signature gatherers are earning less money overall, leading many of them to look for other opportunities.

A (formerly) lucrative business
Behind the polished candidates, slick political consultants and focus-group tested messaging of an election campaign is a ragtag army of low level political operatives, like Martin, who do the grunt work that makes political campaigns possible.

It all starts with a simple question: “Are you a registered Arizona voter?”

Martin, who lives in north Phoenix, has been asking that question for a long time. In 1991, after getting laid off from a job at a Phoenix golf course, he circulated his first petition.

At the time, he was earning 40 cents per signature. It wasn’t much by today’s standards, but he quickly realized he could earn more in one day than he could in a week at the golf course.

Since that first petition, Martin has never looked back. He boasts of collecting signatures for every initiative that’s been on the ballot in Arizona, and many of the candidates, in the past 20 years. Petition circulating had been his main source of income until 2010.

The work is hard, but the business can be lucrative. In 2006, when the state was a hotbed of initiative activity with 10 citizen initiatives on the ballot, Martin was swamped with work. That year, he earned more than $80,000 working roughly nine months. In 2008, when there were six initiatives on the ballot, Martin earned about $60,000 working six months.

The work allowed him to set his own schedule, meet all sorts of interesting people, and to focus on his other interests, like playing golf.

“People look at me out here as maybe one step up from a guy begging for change on the street. They have no idea I was making $80,000 a year,” Martin said.

The industry standard is about a dollar per signature. But most signature gatherers carry multiple petitions at once allowing them to get a dozen or more signatures from patient voters. Circulators talk of “money on the board,” meaning the amount they can get paid if a voter signs all the petitions on their clipboard.

And that dollar for each signature is just the standard starting price. As deadlines approach, candidates or political groups that are short on signatures will pay much more for them.

At the Peoria shopping center, Martin had $9 on the board in four petitions. Signatures for a Peoria City Council candidate were paying $6, while three statewide candidates were paying $1 each.

Signatures for city council candidates often pay more because, in part, they can only be gathered from voters who are residents of the city — limiting the number of available voters, and places to find them.

Martin had an offer for a candidate in Paradise Valley paying $7 per signature, but he said the pay is irrelevant if there’s no place to gather signatures.

In the last few election cycles, business hasn’t been as lucrative. Since 2010, earning a living by gathering signatures has become increasingly difficult. Now, Martin, who has a master’s degree in business administration, is doing some business consulting to stay afloat, and is considering getting out of the signature-gathering business altogether.

“You can’t make a living anymore. Nobody’s making a living, unless they’re living in a tent,” Martin said.

The main difference between then and now, he said, is that access to places to circulate petitions has dramatically decreased. That difficulty and changes to the laws governing how petitions must be circulated have put a big dent in his ability to earn a living.

A new circulator

Phoenix resident John Hansen rests in the shade of a palo verde tree in front of the Burton Barr Library in downtown Phoenix, on May 22. With only days before the nominating petitions  deadline, candidates pay more for each signature, and Hansen hoped to earn about $100 in the four hours he intended to ask passers by for their time and signature. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Phoenix resident John Hansen rests in the shade of a palo verde tree in front of the Burton Barr Library in downtown Phoenix, on May 22. With only days before the nominating petitions deadline, candidates pay more for each signature, and Hansen hoped to earn about $100 in the four hours he intended to ask passers by for their time and signature. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

John Hansen has a prime piece of real estate picked out. He sits outside the Phoenix Public Library downtown, asking passers-by for their signature “to help me eat.”

It’s the 62-year-old Phoenix resident’s first year working as a signature gatherer after being a Realtor for 38 years.

“I had 28 years sobriety and was pretty close to rich when I went back out and started drinking and drugging again. Lost it all,” he said.

He got a DUI recently and couldn’t work as a Realtor without his driver’s license. He did telemarketing for a while, but didn’t like the product being sold, and eventually quit.

Then he discovered signature gathering, and started carrying around petitions for candidates in statewide, congressional and local elections. All told, he had four candidates making $11 on the board.

His first day on the job, he could only work for 15 minutes. The job is mentally exhausting and physically demanding, and at first he didn’t know if he was cut out for it. But after two weeks of practice, he is up to working four to five hours a day, and earning almost $100 a day.

Still, it’s not a job for everyone, and it’s not permanent.

“I’m gonna have to find something new after (the petition-filing deadline),” he said.

Access and other problems
The working conditions are physically demanding, but the biggest problem for petition circulators is access.

There was a time, not so long ago, when business owners embraced, or at least tolerated, petition circulators like Martin.

They allowed him to set up a table in front of their stores when the political season started. Business owners would recognize him, say hello and ask what petitions he was carrying.

But the 2010 election season changed all that, he said.

The 2010 ballot carried a question about legalizing marijuana, and that’s when business owners started to sour on petition circulators.

Martin said petition circulators for the cause were pushy, and caused disruptions at places that had previously allowed signature gatherers. After that year, many of the spots that used to welcome him had new policies against circulating petitions.

Since then, businesses have cracked down on signature gatherers to the point that it’s nearly impossible to find a business to stand in front of without being asked to leave, he said.  The best option is to find a place between two stores at a shopping center and hope that both think it’s the other one’s responsibility to kick him out.

There are only a few fool-proof places to gather signatures. The major three are public libraries, university and community college campuses and the Motor Vehicle Division.

The U.S. Post Office used to be another, but in 1998 it started banning petition circulators on its property. The policy was challenged in federal court with Initiative and Referendum Institute v. United States Postal Service and was most recently upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals in July 2012.

But other federal court cases about petition circulators’ access to private property like shopping centers have gone the other way.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 upheld a California Supreme Court Decision that a supermarket could not ban petition circulators from its parking lot. The decision in Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins means that shopping centers in California have to tolerate petition circulators on their property. Despite that, similar company policies have not faced a legal challenge in Arizona, where private property owners frequently kick petition circulators off their property.

Arizona laws have also made life harder for petition circulators.

In 2009, the Legislature and governor changed the law regulating the circulation of initiative petitions to prohibit circulators from filling in the addresses and dates on multiple petitions signed by the same voter. But that ban doesn’t apply to candidate petitions.

Politicians excluded themselves from the ban, and circulators can still get a voter to sign multiple candidate nomination forms but only write their address and date on one of the forms. That makes the transaction easier and quicker and more likely that voters will take the time to sign the multiple candidate petitions on the circulator’s clipboard.

A 2008 court case struck down the requirement that petition circulators be Arizona residents, and lawmakers deleted the requirement in statute in 2011.

Since then, petition circulators from around the United States have flocked to Arizona to make a quick buck during campaign season — and increasing competition for petition circulators. In 2012, the first year the practice was legal and regulated, more than 150 non-resident signature gatherers came to Arizona.

In the 2014 election cycle, the number of registered non-resident petition circulators jumped to well over 200, coming primarily from California, but also from places as far away as Michigan, Arkansas and Washington state. They work for candidates for almost every elected office, as well as many initiative, referendum and recall campaigns that never reach the ballot.

Out-of-state circulators
Brian Roe of Fresno, Calif., hopped in a car with two fellow petition circulators after hearing through Facebook groups that the pay for signatures on Arizona political candidate petitions was skyrocketing.

He is one of the many professional signature gatherers who travel with the political seasons, going from state to state and gathering signatures for any cause or candidate that pays well.

It’s a loose-knit community of traveling hands, not unlike migrant farm workers. They travel across the 24 states that allow citizen initiatives, stopping off in any municipality or state where candidates are having a hard time making the ballot and paid non-resident signature gatherers are allowed.

“One person will hear Colorado is paying well, and you hear Oregon is paying,” Roe said. “You split up, and may not run into them again for two or three  years until you see them in Las Vegas. We’re all independent contractors and our own bosses, so we go wherever we want to go, wherever we can make the most money.”

But unlike migrant farm workers, traveling petition circulators can earn as much as a rookie lawyer.

Roe said the most he has earned for circulating petitions is close to $1,000 a day. But to earn that kind of money, you have to know some of the tricks of the trade.

In California this year, he was earning $6 per signature on a citizens’ initiative proposing what Roe called “the most ridiculous idea ever.”

Of course, that’s not what he told potential signers.

The initiative would have split California into six different states, but instead of focusing on that, he opened with some of the tangential impacts. In Republican areas, the pitch was often “get rid of Nancy Pelosi” because the congresswoman would be drawn into another state. In rural areas, the pitch was “protect our water from Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

“I never lie, I just put a spin on it so everyone wants to sign,” he said.

Other petition circulators he has seen will print up their own faux petitions with popular ideas like raising the minimum wage or increasing the penalty on pedophiles. Those dummy petitions are the bait to get voters to stop and sign the rest of the petitions the circulators carry.

“There’s some shady people in this business,” Roe said.

And the shady people in the petition-circulating business sometimes include the bosses who run the signature-gathering firms.

The industry standard is as long as 70 percent of the signatures collected by a petition circulator are valid, the signature gatherer gets paid for all the signatures. But if the validity rate falls below 70 percent, the gatherer is paid for only the portion of signatures gathered that are valid.

Reports of petition companies claiming low validity rates to avoid paying the full fare are rampant in the business. The Facebook pages dedicated to alerting signature gatherers to upcoming gigs also devote a lot of space to calling out bad signature-gathering businesses.

When the initiative to split California into six states ultimately failed to gather the more than 800,000 signatures necessary to make the ballot, Roe went looking for greener pastures in Arizona.  But he didn’t find them.

Instead, he spent his 10-hour workdays traveling from one parking lot to another in Scottsdale and Chandler, getting quickly kicked out of each new plot of land he and his fellow traveling petition circulators discovered. The only store they found that actually allowed them to stand in the parking lot and gather signatures was Sprouts supermarket.

After 11 days of circulating petitions here, with each member of his group earning roughly $450 a day, before expenses like their motel rooms, they decided to leave Arizona three days before the signature-gathering season ended.

“We had an offer for $10 per signature, but there’s no place to gather them, and it was above 100 degrees outside. It just wasn’t worth it,” he said.

So he headed back to California for some down time before heading off to Colorado to catch the last vestiges of the petition season there in August, where he hopes to earn enough money to take a few months off and work on his true love: screenplay writing.

In fact, he said he’s working on writing a dark comedy about traveling petition circulators.

“There’s so many interesting characters in this business. A lot of crazy things happen to you,” he said.

One of the characters in the screenplay is based loosely on himself. That character, like Roe, wants to get out of the petition-circulation business and move onto better things.

 

Challenging candidate signatures

Any Arizonan can challenge a candidate’s nomination petitions for office, but the timeline to do so is tight, and the bar for showing that the signatures are invalid is high.

Following the deadline to submit nominating petition signatures, those who wish to challenge a candidate’s nomination can review the candidate’s signatures and file a challenge within 10 business days — by June 11 this year.

Under Arizona law, the Superior Court has 10 days from the date a challenge is filed to render its decision, and the parties have five days after that to file an appeal directly with the Arizona Supreme Court, which must rule “promptly.”

The timeline for challenges is tight because the ballots must be printed by a certain date, and election officials need to know who has officially qualified to be a candidate.

Many candidates submit far more signatures than necessary to qualify for the ballot, and candidates generally aim for a cushion of at least 30-percent more signatures than is actually necessary to qualify, in order to fend off possible challenges.

By the end of business on June 5, the secretary of state had received more than 175 requests to inspect candidates’ qualifying signatures.

Depending on what they find, those requests can become the precursor to candidate challenges.

A signature challenge, however, is not a simple process. To disqualify a candidate’s signatures for office, the challenger must state which signatures they believe are invalid and state exactly why the signatures are invalid.

Matt Roberts, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said they see challenges against signatures for a variety of reasons.

“It’s only limited to the creativity of the challenger,” he said.

The most common reasons are that challengers don’t believe the signer lives within the district, the signer isn’t a registered voter or isn’t a member of the relevant political party, or that the signature doesn’t match the person’s signature on file. Often, they challenge the signature gatherer’s ability to circulate petitions — such as if the circulator is a convicted felon without their rights restored, or isn’t an Arizona resident and didn’t register with the Secretary of State’s Office.

“We see challenges in every election and this one won’t be any different,” Roberts said.

Making the ballot

 Candidates
In order to appear on the ballot, partisan candidates must submit a certain number of signatures from registered voters based on the number of voters in their party and district.

A statewide Republican candidate, for example, must submit a minimum of 5,651 valid signatures from registered Arizona Republicans or independents to earn a spot on the GOP primary ballot, and the signatures must come from all 15 counties.

A legislative candidate must file anywhere from less than 150 signatures to nearly 700 to appear on the ballot, depending on the district and party registration. But candidates usually strive for more signatures, to show they have support from the community and to provide a cushion for any signatures that are challenged or disqualified.

Initiatives
For initiatives, recalls and referendums, the number of signatures required to show enough support from the electorate to appear on the ballot is based on the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. For an initiative to change state laws to appear on the ballot, gatherers must collect signatures equaling 10 percent of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. For the 2014 cycle, in which no initiatives qualified for the ballot, that number would be 172,809 for a statutory initiative.

Initiatives involving constitutional changes require signatures from 15 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election, which would equate to 259,213 valid signatures from registered voters.

Recall campaigns to force an election against an elected official require the highest percentage of signatures. In order to force a recall, petitioners must gather signatures equal to 25 percent of the number of votes cast in the preceding general election for all the candidates for the office. The only successful recall campaign in state history, which removed former Senate President Russell Pierce in 2011, required 7,756 signatures from one legislative district.

Referendum campaigns to block a law approved by the Legislature and governor from being implemented require signatures from 5 percent of the number of voters in the last gubernatorial election, or 86,405 signatures for 2014. One referendum campaign turned in enough signatures to make the ballot this year, but lawmakers sensed a upcoming defeat and repealed the law before the referendum election could happen. For referendums, the signatures must be collected in a 90-day window between when the law is signed and when it goes into effect. All other petitions can begin circulation the day after the November election.

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