- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

SAN DIEGO (AP) - Steve Kriston is accustomed to insults from shoppers. Some tell him to get a job when he solicits signatures to qualify measures for California’s ballot.

This is my job, he responds.

It’s a banner year for paid signature-gatherers like Kriston, who came to San Diego after three months working in Orlando, Florida, on state ballot measures there. He is weighing offers to move to Missouri and Minnesota after California’s season ends. The Hungarian immigrant now makes more than the $1,200 to $1,500 a week he earned as a truck driver.

In California, always a hotbed for voter initiatives, sponsors are paying up to $5.50 a signature, well above the $1 to $3 in previous statewide elections.

“No one has ever seen prices anywhere in this ballpark,” said Steven Maviglio, a longtime political consultant in California.

The threshold for questions to qualify is set by the turnout in the prior election. It was a record low in 2014, so the number of signatures of registered voters needed to place a question on the November ballot is 365,880, which is 28 percent lower, prompting more proposals.

Another factor is a 2011 state law requiring all initiatives except those written by the Legislature go to voters in November, giving advocacy groups only one shot each cycle, rather than the two they had when questions also could be on the primary ballot.

“It’s quite simple supply and demand,” said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. “The rival initiatives start getting into a bidding war for the services of these signature-gatherers.”

The best can command airfare and other travel expenses be covered as they move from state to state.

The bonanza has fueled criticism that only the wealthiest can hope to get on California’s ballot, putting what was intended as a vehicle for democracy when launched in 1911 further out of reach for ordinary citizens. Even some who benefit think it is bad for business if only the deepest pockets can afford to pay for signatures.

Ron Tomczak, whose Victory Consultants Inc. is a major signature-gathering firm in the San Diego area, said consolidating measures in November was a huge mistake. The change was intended to limit referendums to higher-turnout general elections, but Tomczak says it requires more money to rise above a more crowded field.

“Unfortunately, they may say this is the voting season that killed the golden goose,” Tomczak said.

In March, backers of a proposed measure to shift $8 billion in high-speed rail bonds to water projects ended their campaign to get on the ballot, citing the cost of gathering signatures. In late April, investor Charles Munger’s measure to stop the Legislature from passing bills unless they are published for 72 hours was commanding $5.50 a signature, as was one backed by many district attorneys to accelerate appeals by death row inmates.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s measure to make it easier to parole nonviolent offenders was paying $5, as was a proposed cigarette tax increase. On the lower end, a measure to allow recreational use of marijuana was paying $2.

Several factors explain price variations. Groups that start later or back measures that are more complicated or less popular may need to pay more. Wealthy donors may raise offers simply to finish the job quickly.

A repeal of the death penalty backed by M(asterisk)A(asterisk)S(asterisk)H(asterisk) actor Mike Farrell, which started paying $1.50 each and ended around $5.30, spent about $3.5 million gathering signatures, said deputy campaign manager Quintin Mecke. That figure accounts for overhead fees and hundreds of thousands of signatures above the threshold to cushion against any that are deemed invalid.

Eight measures are positioned to appear on the November ballot, including a proposed repeal of a ban on single-use plastic bags. The last day to qualify is June 30 but proponents must allow time to verify signatures, effectively ending the collection season by late May.

Organizers are paid only for valid signatures, and many campaigns figure at least 25 percent will be tossed out. People may have signed twice, they may be ineligible to vote, or they may be registered in a different county than where they signed.

Many signature-gatherers carry a stack of petitions, with the ones on top often paying the most. Popular spots to solicit go to the first who claim then, which is why Kriston says positions outside Wal-Marts are taken as early as 4 a.m.

The most successful collectors have outgoing but not overbearing personalities. Thick skin is required.

Kriston hits Wal-Marts in the morning, when homemakers aren’t rushing to prepare dinner. He targets college campuses and farmer’s markets, looking for people who are less hurried. He does better in small towns, where people are more likely to stop.

He sometimes lures people with voter registration forms - which don’t pay - then asks them to sign a ballot proposal. It takes him about two weeks to become familiar enough with a measure to answer detailed questions.

He tells doubters that their signatures will allow for robust debate of an issue that voters will ultimately decide.

“If they don’t make it on the ballot, politicians love it,” Kriston tells them. “They make the decisions for us. It’s important to keep the voting power with us, not to give it to the politicians.”

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