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Civics & Democracy

CA Nonprofits Want Regulations For Petition Signature Collection

A person holds a bright yellow sign that says in red: Recall Gavin Newsom.
A "Recall Newsom" supporter carries a sign during a petition signing event in 2021.
(Anne Wernikoff
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Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) has introduced a bill that could make it harder for campaigns to mislead voters when circulating petitions to qualify a statewide referendum.

The bill is backed by labor unions, environmentalists and good government groups who allege corporations are abusing California's initiative process to undermine gains for working people.

Proponents point to the fate of measures like Assembly Bill 257, which created a new council with the ability to set labor and pay standards for fast food workers, as well as Senate Bill 1137, which requires oil and gas wells to be at least 3,200 feet from sensitive places like homes and schools.

After those bills were approved, oil and fast food industry lobbyists hired signature gatherers across California and got enough to put the laws up for a vote again in November 2024. In the meantime, neither law will go into effect.

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“The protections that people have fought so hard for are on hold, and we are no closer to ending neighborhood oil drilling because of the initiative process,” said Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of the nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility - Los Angeles.

She’s worked for more than a decade with a coalition of community-based groups to end oil drilling in L.A. neighborhoods, which can lead to a host of health issues, including asthma and cancer.

“The initiative process is a part of democratic reform so that the people could actually engage, not so that corporations could overturn laws meant to regulate them and protect human health,” she said.

At a press conference on Monday, Assemblymember Bryan and his team shared videos of signature gatherers either misrepresenting the purpose of their referendum petitions or lying about their employers. In one video, a signature gatherer encourages a voter to sign a petition “to lower gas prices.” In reality, it sought to eliminate oil drilling restrictions. Bryan said the images have been submitted to the Attorney General.

Organizers and local residents “are having their righteous work undone by a small, concentrated [and] powerful set of stakeholders who do not have the collective will at heart,” said Bryan, whose district includes oil fields in the Baldwin Hills-Inglewood area.

To ensure voters are well-informed before signing a petition, his bill would:

  • Require the name of the top three funders of the petition to be disclosed on the first page, along with a summary of the measure.
  • Require paid signature gatherers to register with the California Secretary of State and wear a badge.

Signers would also be required to initial a statement saying that they’ve reviewed the top funders. And, to limit the reach of outside influence, the bill would also require that at least 10% of the signatures are gathered by an unpaid volunteer.
Hector Barajas, spokesperson for California Independent Petroleum Association, said his organization agrees with transparency, but questions that 10% of signature gatherers be non-paid volunteers. "The only question we would have is: Is there going to be more time for petition gathering?," he added.

Rock Zierman, CEO of California Independent Petroleum Association, said Senate Bill 1137 was jammed through the legislature five days before the end of the 2022 session, which circumvents the normal process. "Last-minute gut-and-amend bills aren't the way to make good policy. When politicians jam through legislation like SB 1137, the people of California have the right to respond and have a say," Zierman said. "That’s the most direct form of Democracy possible.” 

“While we agree with additional transparency measures for signature gathering to ensure voters are well-informed, this proposal is clearly meant to limit the public’s voice in California’s system of direct democracy,” said Jennifer Barrera, CEO and president of California Chamber of Commerce.

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“Despite thousands of bills that have been signed into law over the past 10 years, only seven referenda have qualified for the ballot," Barrera said. "This is all driven by the fact that one referendum has qualified for the 2024 ballot that they don’t like."

Melissa Romero, who manages legislative affairs at California Environmental Voters, disagreed.

“Big oil and other corporations should have to tell the truth and should have to disclose the major funders behind these referendum efforts,” she said.

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