Ballot admission price: $48 million

A California ballot box. (Photo illustration, Hafakot, via Shutterstock)

It’s like a poker game: If you want to play, you have to ante up.

And this year, the ante for Nov. 8 was nearly $48 million. That’s how much the rival interests for 15 initiatives paid to get on the ballot.

That’s not money spent on the merits of the initiatives. It’s the money spent simply to get the propositions before the public.

It is $19.3 million more than the signature-gathering costs in California’s 2012 general election.

Two other measures are on the 17-item ballot, one dealing with English proficiency and the other with the Citizens United Supreme Court case. They were placed before voters by lawmakers.

You need $2,000 to file the initiative with the state, but the next step is the real test: How much do you pay to gather enough voter signatures?

This year, proponents gathered about 11.6 million signatures to qualify each of their 15 initiatives for the November ballot. They paid signature gatherers an average of $4.03 per signature, according to Capitol Weekly’s review of state data.

That is $19.3 million more than was reportedly spent on signature gathering in California in the 2012 presidential election.

In a month, Californians will vote on the 17 statewide measures, the longest ballot since the March 2000 primary election, when voters confronted 20 propositions.

The number of propositions for six elections. (Dorothy Mills-Gregg, Capitol Weekly)

The number of propositions in six elections. (Dorothy Mills-Gregg, Capitol Weekly)

The price of reaching this year’s general election ballot ranged between $1.3 million and $6.66 million per initiative. or from $1.79 to $6.64 per signature, depending on the propositions.

The highest price per signature was paid by Charles Munger, Jr., a physicist and major California Republican party donor, who paid $6.64 per signature to qualify his legislative transparency proposition, Proposition 54. He gathered over one million signatures.

The second highest price paid per signature was Proposition 57, Gov. Jerry Brown’s early parole initiative. They spent $5.69 per signature and gathered about 6,300 more signatures than Munger.

Third place was eight cents lower. At $5.61, Proposition 66 would reform the death penalty. Its opposing measure, Proposition 62, which would repeal the death penalty, came in fifth place at $5.31 per signature.


The per-signature cost. Dollars vertically at left, Propositions 51-67 along the bottom. Source: Secretary of State. (Dorothy Mills-Gregg, Capitol Weekly)

The California Hospital Association had the lowest per-signature cost at $1.79 for Proposition 52.

The CHA began gathering signatures before the 2014 gubernatorial election so they had a much higher threshold to qualify for the ballot: 807,615 signatures.

Because turnout was so low for the last governor’s election, this year’s propositions only needed 585,407 signatures for a constitutional amendment and 365,880 signatures for statutes. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that if a campaign can afford to pay signature gatherers, it has “a nearly 100 percent chance of qualifying for the ballot in many states.”

Capitol Weekly calculated the amount paid per signature with Cal-Access’s campaign finance reports and the Secretary of State’s advisory to county election officials. The former shows total costs, while the latter shows the number of signatures that initiative proponents submitted. Dividing the two numbers shows how much proponents paid per signature.

Click here for a link to the data and charts in Google Sheets.

Since the beginning of the century, Californians have seen an average of 12 ballot measures on the November ballot of each Presidential Election year. Propositions began being placed only on the general election ballot in 2011.

During the past 103 years, more than 1,900 initiatives have been cleared for circulation, and nearly 100 were later withdrawn, according to the state elections officer. Some 1,384 initiatives — 72 percent — failed to qualify for the ballot, and 363 initiatives qualified. Of those, voters approved 123, or 33.9 percent. They rejected 236, or 65 percent, while three initiatives were removed by court order.

The NCSL said on its site that signature gatherers typically are paid between $1 and $3 per signature and a greater reliance on paid signature gatherers has increased the cost to qualify an initiative.


Total signature costs: Dollars vertically at left, Propositions 51-67 across the bottom. Source: Secretary of State. (Dorothy Mills-Gregg, Capitol Weekly)

According to President of PCI Consultants Angelo Paparella, who has been in the signature gathering business for nearly three decades and whose company qualified four propositions for the Nov. 8 ballot, the two biggest cost factors are the time frame for gathering signatures and competition with other petitions on the street.

Other factors include the initiative’s content or weather conditions, Paparella added.

But one difference Paparella said he has seen over the years is less access to the public. Having reduced zones in which signatures can be gathered, he said, can drive up costs.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that malls are a public forum and open to political discourse. This means signature gathers are permitted there. But more recent California court rulings have reduced the areas where signature gatherers and other curators of political speech can access the public.

They are restricted from “more and more stand-alone grocery stores, [and] even in some strip malls,” Paparella said. This list also includes The Home Depot and Costco.

“It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the access that we did,” Paparella said.

Meanwhile, Munger’s $6.64 per signature is highest this election, but it is slightly lower than the $6.77 per signature of Proposition 30 in 2012.

Proposition 30, which increased sales and income taxes and was approved by voters, carried the highest per-signature cost in 2012.

In 2008, Proposition 10 proponents reportedly paid $3.95, the highest per-signature cost of any of the ballot measures that year. The initiative, which dealt with alternative fuels, qualified but voters turned it down.

“We’re not trying to get voters to vote for an issue,” Paparella said, “just to put it on the ballot. It’s to give everyone the opportunity to vote on an issue, and that’s really our role.”


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