The assumption underlying the discussion on the initiative process is that the employment of paid petitioners is a harmful development reducing the quality of our democracy and privileging money over true commitment to causes that are put on ballot. However, this assumption is a questionable one, and counterevidence is abundant.
Therefore, this essay will have the following structure: first of all, it will show little harms in employing paid signature-gatherers that are offset by possible benefits of such design of the initiative process, and, secondly, the essay will criticize the workability of the solutions offered in the concluding section of the chapter. The perceived danger in allowing paid petitioners is that only causes that enjoy considerable financial support can make their way to the ballot. Another threat, as opponents of this policy argue, is associated with the fact that it is devastating to the spirit of volunteerism and civic involvement.
There is a view that ‘[p]aying petitioners degraded the signature gatherer because it came to be seen as a sales job rather than as the precious province of the public-spirited citizen’ (Ellis, 2002, p. 48). Thus, the need for mobilizing and engaging citizens becomes virtually irrelevant to policy-making process. However, there is little persuasive evidence that paid petitioners signify the death of grassroots and the advent of the ‘greenback democracy. ’ Issues that arouse strong public sentiment can recruit a sufficient number of volunteers to push their case through.
There are several reasons why volunteer signatures drive will survive in the future. First of all, using volunteers in the qualification phase can help save money for the electoral contest. Secondly, volunteer petitioners often gather signatures with higher validity rates, thus the number of signatures needed decreases whenever volunteers are used. Thirdly, volunteer-based signature gathering campaigns constitute a way to mobilize and inform citizens. Fourthly, volunteer signatures drive is a powerful public relations tool, since such initiatives usually enjoy positive publicity (Ellis, 2002).
Volunteer campaigns have potential to succeed only if a campaign issue can easily generate strong feelings among the public. Yet issues arousing strong public sentiment are few and far between; more often, it is an interest of a smaller group of people that is at stake, but it is undemocratic to disregard the plea of such groups of citizens only because their case does not excite hearts and minds of their fellow citizens. In the modern democracy, there are few deeply appalling wrongs that need immediate remedy and can attract crowds of concerned citizen, like the case of African Americans in the 1960s.
In the modern democracy, incremental changes need to be made to accommodate different interests and to make their coexistence more efficient and pleasurable for all. Numerous notable initiatives, serving community interests best, made their way to the ballot thanks to paid petitioners. Furthermore, the ban on paid petitioners will affect different states in different ways. It will create a dangerous disparity in the quality of the initiative process in states with smaller and bigger populations.
For example, it will create considerable complications for signature gathering in such states as California, where the number of signatures that are necessary for an initiative to be put on ballot can be several times higher than in other states. It is especially relevant given the everyday life constraints on citizenship and civic participation. Consumerist ideology makes long working hours an imperative and leaves people with less time to participate in politics and community affairs. People volunteer in their leisure time, and leisure is a competitive sector.
It is hard to expect a large number of citizens to sacrifice their spare time for gathering signatures in favor of their cause, however strongly they feel about it. Indeed, ‘[t]he main hurdle that most initiative proponents face is finding enough people willing and able to dedicate a large number of hours to gathering signatures’ (Ellis, 2002, p. 53). Moreover, there are legitimate concerns that the ban on paid petitioners will privilege people with abundant amount of spare time over those possessing more financial resources. In fact, paid petitioners democratize the initiative process by making it more inclusive.
Many citizens do not hold strong opinions on some issues, but it by no means indicates that these issues should be excluded from the democratic debate. There are issues that are hard to frame in the way that solicits a passionate positive or negative attitude. In addition, privileging people with spare time over those with money borders on classism. For example, unemployed citizens with a lot of spare time can recruit a large number of volunteer to campaign for a welfare reform, while middle-class businessmen do not have such time to petition for a tax reduction.
In a democracy, all groups ought to have equal access to the mechanisms of democratic participation and should be allowed to make the best use of resources available to them to ensure such participation. Therefore, as Ellis (2002, p. 54) notes, ‘the rise of paid petitioners and professional signature-gathering firms promotes democracy by increasing the involvement of a wider diversity of groups. ’ The ban on paid petitioners will not significantly decrease the role of big interests and money in the initiative process.
A fact that is often overlooked by the opponents of paid petitioners concerns the evidence that recruitment, training, and coordination of volunteers mean considerable costs to an initiative sponsor, although volunteers work for free (Ellis, 2002). Moreover, the ban on paid petitioners will give an unfair advantage to organizations with better access to human resources. It ‘would advantage firms that employed large numbers of people and would make it impossible for all but the most popular causes to exercise the right of direct democracy’ (Ellis, 2002, p. 48).
The opponents of paid petitioners also overlook the fact that signature gathering firms have a more professional approach to the initiative process. One of the possible advantages, as Ellis (2002) acknowledges, is that such firms have more experience in planning signature gathering campaigns and can offer a clear timeline for the process. However, there is another important advantage in employing signature gathering firms. Professionals working there can inform citizens more efficiently by presenting information about the issue at stake in a more accessible and understandable way.
Thus, the indirect benefit of using paid petitioners is greater awareness of the citizenry on a wider array of issues. The proposal to ban paid petitioners also underestimates people’s ability to choose whether to sign a petition. It is argued that signatories to petitions do not express their real opinion but agree to sign them ‘for a variety of reasons, among which are desire to be rid of the solicitor or to help him earn a day’s wages’ (Register, 1913; in Ellis, 2002). However, citizens are often more aware and concerned than this notion assumes.
Many of them refuse to sign petitions that contradict their convictions. If ignorance was the case, volunteer signature drives would be as futile as professional signature gathering firms. Having proven that the harms involved in the process of employing paid petitioners in the initiative process are often exaggerated, there is a need to critique the proposed solutions to the perceived crisis. Providing more information about signature gathering will have little effect, as citizens are already overwhelmed with information on public issues.
Few would dedicate their time to studying booklets on how certain initiatives made their way to the ballot. There are cognitive constraints on the amount of information citizens can consume. Furthermore, few would have enough spare time to devote it to reading booklets with information on how many volunteers and how many paid petitioners were employed to gather support for a certain initiative. The proposal to leave petitions with county registration officers can be dismissed on similar grounds: citizens do not have enough spare time to dedicate to public affairs.
Valuing signatures collected by volunteers over those collected by paid petitioners is simply non-enforceable. Abandoning signature gathering altogether is also not a viable alternative, since the process of petitioning presents at least some checks on the power of large interests. Paid petitioners ensure that issues of at least some interest to at least some groups of citizens make their way to the ballot. In fact, it does not quite matter how issues are placed on ballot; what matters most is the citizens’ ability to express their opinion about different initiatives in a popular vote.