Proponents of our state’s for-profit initiative industry defend paid signature gathering as protected by our First Amendment right to free speech. Well, their speech may be free, but it certainly ain’t cheap.
An unscientific survey of paid signature gatherers yesterday showed that the street price of signatures has more than doubled in the final few weeks of the petition season, fetching between $1.75 and $2.50 a piece. We can only estimate the markup, but one can safely guess that the firms are charging between $3.00 and $5.00 a signature, possibly more. That adds up when you need 200,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Many voters have the impression that direct democracy is somehow more democratic than representative democracy, because the people get the final vote. But we only get to vote on those initiatives that have hundreds of thousands of dollars of special interest money to buy their way onto the ballot.
In that sense, money has become a freer sort of speech than speech itself… which only serves to cheapen our democracy even as it makes it more expensive.