Finley: Ballot drives are a pay-to-play game

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Petition peddlers seem to outnumber panhandlers on the streets of downtown Detroit.

It’s hard to go anywhere without being assaulted by clipboard-bearing pitchmen pushing the nine initiatives vying for a spot on next November’s ballot.

But don’t think the person handing you the pen is a true believer in whatever cause he or she is asking you to endorse. In nearly every case, the gatherers are hired hands who get paid for each signature they collect.

Sometimes it’s a buck a name. But it can go as high as $5.

“It’s a market-driven service,” says Roger Martin, of Martin Waymire in Lansing. “The more petitions being circulated, the more you have to pay per signature because the ability to train and recruit people to handle petitions gets more difficult.”

Michigan’s constitution provides an avenue for citizens to alter the governing document by a vote of the people, after demonstrating enough support to place an issue on the ballot.

But these are hardly citizen-driven initiatives. In nearly every case, the ballot drives are financed by deep-pocketed special interests with something to gain from the outcome.

So they are willing to spend a ton of money, $1 million or more, to hire out the name-collecting process.

Of the ballot drives currently underway, only one qualifies as a genuine citizen effort — the push to create an independent commission to redraw electoral district lines.

“It’s the first one I’ve seen in decades,” says Martin, who represents the anti-gerrymandering group. “It’s a very hard thing to do. You need an army of trained volunteers and an issue people are really pumped up about to have a true citizens initiative.”

That’s how it should work. The state constitution shouldn’t be for sale to those with the most cash. If citizens are fired up enough to amend the constitution, they should do the work themselves. And the threshold for success should be quite high.

If citizens championed their own causes, they’d avoid the situation stumbled into by a group seeking to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol believes it has obtained enough signatures to qualify for a place on the ballot. But its petitions are being held hostage by the firm the pot advocates hired to collect them. The coalition is $30,000 short of what it owes for the names, and the vendor won’t release them until it is paid in full.

Free speech protections present a barrier to banning payment for collecting signatures. But the state should at least demand paid circulators plainly identify themselves as such. And it should require anyone asking for signatures to read a brief, approved script accurately explaining the issue to those being solicited.

Many paid circulators don’t have a clue about what they’re asking voters to sign, and since they’re being paid per name, they have an incentive to mislead. Often, two or more petition groups with different political viewpoints will share the same name gatherer to cut down on costs.

Before signing any petition, ask questions about who’s backing the initiative, what exactly it will do and whether the person with the clipboard is being paid by the name.

If you don’t get clear answers, walk on by.

Catch The Nolan Finley Show weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.