State House News Service
Monday, December 6, 1999
Paid Signature Gatherers Play Larger Role
in '00 Ballot Box Race
By Elisabeth J. Beardsley
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, DEC. 6, 1999 ... National Voter Outreach CEO Rick Arnold
styles himself a modern-day political mercenary.
For a fee, his Nevada-based company fields armies of professional signature
gatherers to put initiative petitions on election ballots in 24 states, including
Massachusetts. With a $100,000 retainer raised by Gov. Paul Cellucci, the company worked
with traditional volunteers to gather twice as many signatures as is needed for Cellucci's
income tax rollback petition to advance.
A libertarian, Arnold says he wouldn't vote for most of his clients' initiatives,
but advocacy and ideology are not part of his mission.
"We're mercenaries," he said. "My mission is to get them on the
ballot so people at least have a chance to have a say."
While they may be at odds with traditional grass roots activists, paid signature
gatherers are now a fixture on the Massachusetts initiative petition front. Many campaigns
this year enlisted paid workers to hit the streets and malls in search of signatures on
behalf of questions that roll back the income tax, reform the state's drug laws, and grant
Internet providers access to cable lines.
Some activists decry the practice as special interests buying access to the
ballot. But petition organizers say it's necessary as "insurance" due mostly to
a recent Supreme Judicial Court ruling that banned extraneous marks on petition sheets.
To date, one thing is clear: the campaigns that bought signature gatherers are
getting what they paid for. All nine active petition drives were ready for last week's
filing deadline, with several campaigns submitting more than 100,000 signatures when only
57,1000 were required. At least five of those campaigns used some combination of paid and
Secretary of State William Galvin reported receiving 800,000 signatures. Activists
estimated they collected one million, inundating the office with 750,000 pieces of paper.
Both attributed the deluge to the SJC ruling. Campaigns reported near-universally that
they only allowed one signature per page for fear of disqualifying doodles, coffee spots
or -- some feared -- saboteurs.
Cellucci campaign director Rob Gray said paid workers gathered 47,000 of the
150,000 signatures collected. In the end, volunteers led by Citizens
for Limited Taxation produced 80,000 certified signatures. That was more
than enough to meet the 57,100 hurdle, even with potential challenges before the state
Ballot Law Commission, Gray said.
But Gray added that the paid cushion protected against a repeat of '98, when the
same tax cut petition was picked off by challenges to a tiny number of signatures.
"You're crazy if you don't do it (hire gatherers) now, because of the SJC
ruling," Gray said. "We did it just to be safe."
The strategy doesn't sit well with everyone. The Tax Equity Alliance of
Massachusetts accused special interest groups of "gross misuse of the initiative
process." TEAM Executive Director James St. George, who was active in the demise of
the tax cut last cycle, said paid gatherers don't "know or care" about tax
policy in Massachusetts, that it's just a way to "make money."
"It perverts the notion of the initiative process as a way for ordinary
citizens to have their voices heard," he said. "It's essentially buying policy
and ignoring the middle man, the legislator."
Signature-related challenges must be filed with the Ballot Law Commission by Dec.
31, but neither TEAM nor the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which helped quash the
'98 initiative, plan to appeal. Both organizations say the signature numbers are
insurmountable, the process is time-consuming and expensive, and their members want to be
home for the holidays.
IN THE FIELD
The rate per certifiable John Hancock on the income tax rollback campaign ranged
from 75 cents to $1, Arnold said. During the signature season, a core team of 8-10 NVO
staffers in Carson City, Nevada oversees company operations nationwide, contracting with
30 on-site managers for the fieldwork. The managers recruit campaigners through ads in
A 40-minute training session covers the rules of the particular state and the
basics of the issue involved. Street-level operatives leave armed with fact sheets and
talking points. Arnold said the "very emphatic" drill this year in Massachusetts
was mark-free petitions.
The most experienced paid signature gatherers who roam the nation in pursuit of
the hottest initiatives can pile up as many as 250 signatures a day, Arnold said. Working
five or six days straight, the average paid gatherer harvests upwards of 1,000 signatures
per week. During the Cellucci campaign, the NVO crew brought in over 2,000 signatures per
day, he said.
By contrast, Arnold said a locally hired "trainee" typically brings in
400-600 signatures per week and the average volunteer compiles around 40 for the entire
cycle. He added that this year's income tax cut required less handholding because CLT runs a sophisticated volunteer operation. NVO piled up 47,000
signatures as "insurance" for the CLT crew, he
"The odds against someone doing this are so tremendous," Arnold said.
"We're helping them get over the first huge immediate hurdle."
Backers of the Internet access petition, one of this year's most hotly contested
questions, say the "David versus Goliath" nature of the campaign demanded a
professional effort. Coalition for Consumer Choice spokesman Stephen Allen said the
campaign hired a Brookline company called Spoon Works for an undisclosed sum.
"You want to go out and do it right," Allen said. "They have the
infrastructure and the organizational message to be able to assure that you will get the
signatures on a timely basis, and that you will get them in the right distributions to
Veteran ballot crusader Thomas Kiley, who spearheaded a campaign to reform the
state's drug laws, said he's used paid gatherers "sparingly" in the past, in
keeping with the Massachusetts mindset, although he noted it's "pretty common"
elsewhere. This year, Kiley hired California-based Progressive Campaigns, which helped
round up more than 76,000 certified signatures.
"You get a sustained effort," Kiley said. "One petition with a
clear focus, using people who are committed to that effort, in fact leads to greater voter
Progressive Campaigns President Angelo Paparella said his troops' work cost
Kiley's campaign in excess of $200,000, with signatures worth about a buck apiece. The
company employs 25 full-time people, plus thousands of independent contractors nationwide.
The bulk of Progressive's work is signature gathering, but the company also
provides other services. For instance, it checks signatures for validity, tabulates the
numbers from different geographic areas, processes correspondence and picks up certified
signatures from town clerks. "We take care of all of that so they don't have to worry
about it at all," Paparella said.
Professional gatherers say the hardest aspects of the job are fielding the barrage
of questions from potential signatories and staying out of sparring matches. National
Petition Management President Lee Albright said his people know their issues, and are
warned to avoid debates.
The California-based company secured a spot on this state's '98 ballot for a
question slashing the unearned income tax rate. Depending on the issue's difficulty and
available workforce -- very tight these days, Albright noted -- pay ranges between $1 and
$1.50 per signature.
"The paid signature gatherers are not hired as public relations staff to
promote an issue," Albright said. "They are hired to present an issue to
registered electors in the state and allow them an opportunity to sign the petition so it
will be placed on the ballot."