Initiatives could be getting more expensive

If you can’t afford to qualify your initiative in 2008, Arnold, the bonds,
and absentee voting may be to blame.

Some pollsters and initiative sponsors have predicted these factors will
lead to a far higher turnout this year compared to 2002. This, in turn,
would drive up the number of signatures needed to qualify an initiative. At
least two groups have said the anticipated higher turnout has led them to
file their 2008 initiatives before this year’s election.

It’s no so much that voter turnout will be unusually high this time, said
Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. It’s that turnout hit a record
low of 50.6 percent with the 2002 Gray Davis versus Bill Simon contest. This
actually drove down the number of signatures needed to file a constitutional
initiative from 670,816 to 598,105.

“That was a ‘hold your nose, who am I gonna choose, maybe I should just stay
home’ kind of election,” DiCamillo said.

In the four governor’s races between 1986 and 1998, turnout was between 58
percent and 61 percent. If voter interest rebounds to those levels,
DiCamillo said, turnout will likely jump from about 7.5 million in 2002 to
9.4 million this year. Because the number of signatures needed to qualify a
constitutional initiative equals 8 percent of the turnout in the most recent
regularly-scheduled gubernatorial race, that number of extra voters would
push total signatures to over 750,000. The new threshold goes into effect
whenever the election is certified, generally by mid-December.

Scott Lay, CEO of the Community College League, said he did some quick math
earlier this year and came up with very similar numbers. This, in turn, led
him to file an initiative relating to community-college funding this
year–even though it meant they would be gathering signatures during
holidays, a notoriously difficult time.

“We absolutely pushed up our signature-gathering efforts with the
expectation that the threshold would go up,” said Lay. (Disclosure: Lay is
associated with the Around the Capitol Web site and the Capitol Weekly).

Lay wasn’t the only one. Mike Spence, president of the CA Republican
Assembly, and U.S. Senate candidate Dick Mountjoy have joined forces on an
initiative that would prevent the California from giving driver’s licenses,
in-state college tuition and other benefits to illegal immigrants. They
filed with the secretary of state on September 22 with the goal of getting
on the June 2008 ballot.

“We were concerned the cost could go up if we didn’t file it when we did,”
said Spence.

Any increase in the number of signatures needed would lead to an equivalent
increase in the cost of signature gathering, said Angelo Paparella,
president of Progressive Campaign Incorporated of Los Angeles, a
petition-gathering and initiative-consulting firm. He said the current cost
usually ranges from $1.5 million to $2.5 million, depending primarily on how
fast the signatures need to be gathered.

If DiCamillo’s prediction comes true, this would translate into an
additional $375,000 to $625,000 in signature gathering costs. Fred Kimball,
president of Kimball Petition Management, predicted a more modest rise in
cost for this number of extra signatures, in the neighborhood of $200,000.
It’s not just the absence of Davis and Simon on the ballot that will draw
voters back, DiCamillo added. There’s the presence of celebrity Governor
Arnold Schwarzenegger and the $37 billion in infrastructure bonds.

But not everyone is buying the idea that turnout will rebound. Mark
Baldassare, director of research at the Public Policy Institute of
California, said his polling is pointing toward a similar turnout as 2002.

His current estimate of turnout, pending the final results of a poll later
this month, is only eight million. He blames this on a pair of gubernatorial
candidates “who can’t energize the base”–and he said the bonds won’t help.
“For policy people, the bonds are exciting,” Baldassare said. “For the
average person, they don’t feel like an urgent issue.”

But regardless of who or what is on the ballot, there are a couple factors
that could push the total number of voters upward. For one thing, population
growth has steadily pushed up the threshold for decades: In 1978, the
Proposition 13 property-tax initiative needed only 436,706 signatures to
qualify. State population swelled by about 2.3 million people between
mid-2000 and mid-2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This has helped
add an additional 573,000 registered voters between 2002 and 2006, according
to statistics from the secretary of state’s office. Heading into next
month’s election, California has 15.6 million registered voters.

But its how those voters are voting that is really pushing up turnout,
DiCamillo said. While he stopped short of making an outright prediction, he
said this could be the year that the state hits 50 percent absentee voting.
The convenience of voting by mail ensures extremely high participation by
people who have ordered absentee ballots. A full quarter of the electorate
is now registered as permanent absentee.

One-third of people voted absentee in 2000, DiCamillo said, but this hit 40
percent in last year’s special election and 47 percent in the June
primaries. In the meantime, recent voter turnout has been strong. It hit 76
percent in a 2004 general election that featured the most vehemently fought
presidential race in recent history. But even last year’s special, in which
most voters saw no actual candidates on the ballot, topped 50 percent.

But the hurry to get in the pipeline now appears to mainly be happening
among those who already were far along in the process of writing their
initiatives and gathering support, Kimball said. A more generalized rush
would have happened if the governor hadn’t vetoed AB 2946, he added. This
bill, from Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Debra Bowen, D-Marina
del Rey, would have required that signature gatherers be paid by the hour
instead of by the signature.

That, Kimball said, could have added $3.5 million to $5 million to the cost
of qualifying. But even this price tag is lower than what comes next.
“The cost of getting on the ballot is never as high as the cost of running
the actual campaign,” Kimball said.

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