To qualify for the ballot in Washington State, most initiative campaigns rely on a workforce of petition circulators—who are paid by the signature and don’t always tell the truth
by Hanna Brooks Olsen
Outside of a grocery store in North Seattle, a man sits with two signs—one hand-written, one printed professionally. He has multiple copies of two petitions, neatly aligned on the folding table.
The printed sign reads NO TAX ON JOBS. The handwritten sign says SIGN FOR GUN SAFETY.
The two petitions on the table are nearly indistinguishable from each other, though they are for two very different campaigns. One is working to put a suite of gun safety laws before the voters of Washington State. The other is working to repeal a law passed by the City of Seattle to charge large employers a fee to raise revenue for homelessness services and housing.
As they go into the store, every single person signs both. Few are asking any questions.
“Yeah, put them on the ballot,” one woman says. “Why not?”
When asked if he’s being paid, the middle-aged man at the table—who has several grocery bags of personal belongings at his side—is uncomfortable at first. But finally, he admits that yes, he is being paid per signature by each campaign.
He’s not alone.
To qualify for the ballot, initiatives must gather a specific number of valid signatures. That number is based on election turnout from previous cycles; for City of Seattle initiatives, campaigns must gather a number of signatures that is equal to or more than ten percent of the voters who came out for the previous mayoral race. For statewide campaigns, the number is based on voter turnout for the previous gubernatorial election.
This year, in Washington State, initiative campaigns must gather 259,622 signatures. In Seattle, they must collect 22,040. However, each of those signatures must be validated as belonging to a registered voter—invalid signatures can lead to entire pages being discarded.
“Since a certain percentage of petition signatures are normally found to be invalid due to duplication and non-registration, it is recommended that sponsors file as many signatures as possible,” according to the Secretary of State’s office.
This is a tall order for volunteers, particularly because, in Seattle, petitioners have just 180 days to get it done. It’s also the first major step for many campaigns; hundreds of hours of labor are required to even get on the ballots, and many don’t want to burn out their volunteers before the hard part, like door-knocking and fundraising, get going. For that reason, many campaigns spend money to make sure it gets done.
Despite multiple legal attempts over the last two decades to clarify or change the way that petitions are circulated, paying signature gatherers has been and remains an integral part of the state’s initiative process. However, it also remains largely unseen by the general public. Most civilians have no idea that there’s an entire economy to signature collection. This isn’t necessarily because campaign professionals have tried to conceal the realities of how initiatives wind up on the ballot—instead, the process hides in plain sight.
As a result, when they stop at that card table outside of the grocery store, many voters have no idea whether they’re talking to someone who’s being paid for their signature or not.
Who Pays Signature Gatherers?
Paid signature gathering was illegal before 1994, in large part due to fears that payment per signature “encourages the introduction of fraud in the signature gathering process.”
The courts, though, found that because there had been “no evidence of fraud linked to the payment per signature method of compensating signature gatherers” that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that there could be in the future.
Since then, signature collection has become a multi-million dollar enterprise, wherein donor dollars are routed through a series of consultants and, ultimately, handed over to the people with the clipboards.
One of the most critical elements of paid signature gathering is that campaigns, themselves, typically do no pay signature gatherers directly. Instead, they contract with firms who handle it—making it difficult to trace campaign money directly from donors to the people with clipboards trying to get you to sign something.
Campaigns do, however, have to disclose how much they pay these firms and who the firms are. Any voter can look at any statewide campaign to see how much they’ve spent to collect signatures. However, they may not be able to find who was receiving that money, and they definitely won’t be able to see what that money actually went to.
For example, the Just Want Privacy campaign, which tried and failed to get a bathroom discrimination bill on the ballot in 2016, paid a consultant named Jeffrey Johnson more than $6,000, according to one campaign filing form, for signature gathering. They paid another consultant more than $30,000 for the same thing. Neither of these individuals are easily located online, and neither own registered businesses under these names.
Ekott, whose address is an unassuming business park in California, is listed on LinkedIn as the CEO of Beat Club Clothing and Music. Nothing publicly available ties him to Washington’s initiative process, or political consulting in general. And someone going by this name banked close to $200,000 over the course of one year—just for offering signature-gathering services.
And, in the end, it didn’t work; Just Want Privacy failed to qualify for the ballot multiple years in a row.
Not every signature gatherer is this shady, though—plenty of firms (or “petition drive management companies”), like PCI Consultants and Arno Political Consultants, have been in the game for decades and are well known by candidates, campaigns, and disclosure watchdogs.
Both PCI and Arno are, like many other firms, run out of California—and many of the signature gatherers who work for these organizations do, too. This creates a cross-state labor economy that functions not unlike migrant farm work, the tourism economy, and any other seasonal workforce.
Except instead of getting minimum wage, gatherers are paid by the signature (and, sometimes, in hotel rooms or other lodging) and they may have room to bargain on the going rate.
How Do Signature Gatherers Get Paid?
To say that signature gathering is its own economy is not an overstatement. The ebbs and flows of politics each year contribute to a shifting market, both for campaigns and the people rely on them to earn a living.
In 2016, Washington had a stack of state and local initiatives vying for the time and attention of voters. That meant gatherers were in short supply. Additionally, that year, California extended its signature collection deadline, and many of the gatherers remained down south to finish out the season there.
As a result, campaigns—including Just Want Privacy—reported paying as much as $4 per signature, which is four times higher than the going rate in a slower year. This is also why many gatherers end up working for multiple campaigns at once—which campaigns don’t always appreciate.
Gatherers, many of whom are very low-income and potentially transient, are expected to meet a quota to get all of the bonuses promised to them. They might receive airfare, hotel vouchers, per diem for food, or other benefits if they meet their marks. And, of course, they stand to earn well above minimum wage if they can get enough people to sign. A good signature gatherer—one who’s charismatic, clever, and knows what people want to hear—can get more than 100 people to sign in a day.
Signature gatherers may be paid a salary, but most often, they’re paid under-the-table, like day laborers would be. Frequently don’t pay taxes on their income. And most of them think of themselves more as salespeople than political pundits. They aren’t trying to change minds—they’re trying to sell a product.
How Do I Know If Someone’s Being Paid?
The short answer is: If you’re in Seattle, you ask them or ask to see their badge.
Though Democracy Vouchers got the lion’s share of the attention, Seattle’s groundbreaking vote on Honest Elections also ushered in a new era of transparency for signature gathering. Honest Elections, which voters approved in 2015, added a new section to the Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) which reads as follows:
Signature gatherers for Seattle ballot issues (City ballot measure, initiative, referendum, charter amendment) must disclose if they are paid for gathering signatures.
City law also requires that gatherers wear badges which clearly state that they are paid gatherers.
Prior to this addition, gatherers did not need to tell voters whether or not they were paid. And, if you’re outside of the city limits (say, in Skyway or Renton) or solely asking about a statewide initiative, they still don’t. You can still ask them, though.
How Do I Know If Someone’s Lying?
One of the most controversial elements of paid signature gathering is that it can add a degree of desperation—the person gathering the signatures is literally depending on them for food, rent, or other expenses.
Recently, activists with both Working Washington and Socialist Alternative caught signature gatherers for Amazon- and Starbucks-backed No Tax On Jobs campaign telling blatantly untrue things to potential signers. The campaign, which spent more than $250,000 in just a few weeks, ultimately drew enough votes to challenge the law, passed by City Council.
Due to the volume of petitions and petitioners, voters need to be extra alert when signing anything that’s handed to them.
Regardless of whether or not the petitioner is a volunteer or paid to be there, the Secretary of State’s Office reminds voters that they are entitled to read the entirety before signing to ensure that the person collecting signatures is not being misleading.
“You should feel free to read any part of the petition that you think is necessary in order for you to make up your mind, even if that means unfolding it or removing it from a clipboard.”
What’s Next for Paid Signature Gatherers?
In spite of the fact that many people remain unaware that paid signature gathering is perfectly legal and, in fact, a thriving industry, some lawmakers and activists in California and here in Washington are looking to spread the word—and change the law.
Josh Newman, a Democrat representing Fullerton (the same area that many signature gathering firms cite as their address) wrote an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee this year. In it, he laid out several instances of outright misinformation campaigns being launched by paid gatherers wherein there were no legal ramifications.
“The pay-per-signature system, by virtue of the incentives it creates and rewards, subverts the intent of our state’s founding fathers, who envisioned a people-powered system of referenda and propositions that pass or fail on their merits, not on how well the system can be gamed,” he wrote.
Paid signature gathering doesn’t discriminate by party, though, and in Washington, paid efforts have lead to ballot measures which easily passed among voters. Campaigns including increasing the minimum wage and strengthening protections for domestic violence victims have both qualified because of paid gathering efforts.
Those in favor point to the difficulty of gathering enough signatures to qualify, and the myriad laws which would never get a chance to get on the ballot without this system.
For now, there seems to be little political will to change the system, in no small part because many voters don’t realize that the friendly guy with the stickers outside of Rite Aid isn’t actually there as a volunteer. And in the meantime, there are plenty of ballot measures each year that need to qualify, and they need someone (or a lot of someones) to help them do it.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a co-founding editor of Seattlish and has written for the Atlantic, CityLab, and Seattle Met. When not stringing together words or making sounds she enjoys music on vinyl, bourbon, college football, making impulse purchases at second-hand stores, ballet, and sitting in dark bars with friends. She also sings a mean rendition of Walking in Memphis.