No matter what your feelings about California’s initiative process, there is overwhelming evidence that many people will sign just about any petition. Every so often a group goes out with the intention of proving just that statement and inevitably they do so. These pranksters typically write a petition that contains some outrageous proposition such as rescinding the entire U.S. Constitution or implementing racial cleansing policies plucked directly from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, then they give it a benign or friendly name, go out and collect signatures galore just to show how stupid the electorate can be. What is really shows that too many people sign things without thinking. Mostly, they are just careless, rushed or too polite when it comes to encounters in a parking lot.
This week a group headed by venture capitalist Tim Draper plans to submit 1.3 million signatures to election officials to certify an initiative for the November 2016 ballot that would split California into six states. To qualify, 807,615 of the signatures must be valid. Perhaps the state needs to be split, but the idea of making it into six states is ridiculous; yet, 1.3 million people signed up.
The real question is why do so many people constantly sign petitions dealing with initiative issues that most have never even read and do not understand? One reason is that some portion of the population is functionally illiterate. Assuming the paid signature gatherer or enthusiastic issue supporter even bothers to explain who is eligible to sign – and that is a big problem that takes a heck of a lot of assuming – the signer fails to even understand that he or she is not eligible. What does that say about the process?
The recent county initiative banning all enhanced oil recovery operations submitted more than 4,165 signatures to qualify for the ballot, but only 2,642 were deemed valid by sampling, which means that approximately 35 percent, more than one-third of the signatures, were invalid. The initiative still easily qualified for the ballot; fewer than 1,900 valid signatures were required, but who were the people who did not know they either lived out of the county or who could not sign the petition? Whatever it was, my guess that this is typical of all petition campaigns on all issues. Obviously, people who cannot understand that they are ineligible to sign might have a tough time understanding a complex initiative.
Another problem is that many people just do not want to say no; they think it impolite, so they sign to get it over with. Others just respond to characterization given by the petitioner, you know the pitches, “We’re doing it for the children” or “You don’t want anyone poisoning your water, do you?” or “You’d be much better off if Sacramento was not the capital.” They may have a point on that last one!
If you have studied an issue, read the arguments, the initiative, and support it, by all means sign, but if you’re dragging the kids into the supermarket and someone approaches you with that typical glib, guilt emanating, 10-word summary of an eight-page document you will never read, just tell them to forget it because the devil is in the details. If they insist tell them you’ll look into it and if you support that position you’ll come back one day and sign up.
Remember, the person carrying the clipboard supports the issue or may be getting paid to collect signatures in some manner, or both; they are not a neutral party. Your signature is valuable like your vote – always understand what you are signing be it a financial document or a petition.