THE BLOG
08/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Signature Gathering Reform: The Most Critical and Immediate Fix to Direct Democracy

Offering free food outside a homeless shelter in exchange for a signature on a petition to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Telling voters that a "civil rights" ballot measure would end discrimination when in fact it would ban equal opportunity programs. Holding a "fraud party" where ballot initiative campaigns copy names from the phonebook onto signature petitions. Signature gatherers, including those charged with fraud and forgery, a criminal convicted of assault, and a registered sex offender collect personal information from people for signature petitions to place an initiative on the ballot.

These are just a handful of examples of abuse, fraud, and deception from recent years that have plagued the ballot initiative process across the country. Starting in 2004, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) began receiving numerous complaints across the states about abuses in signature gathering. Over the last three election cycles, there has been a dramatic jump in the use of signature fraud all across the country to qualify ballot initiatives.

Every election cycle, voters are asked to weigh in on hundreds of ballot measures. In fact, over the last ten years citizens across the country have voted on over 1,500 ballot measures with well over one billion dollars raised and spent on the passage or defeat of issues that have a real impact on people's lives. In recent years, in state after state, the integrity of the system has been increasingly undermined by a lack of standards, transparency, accountability, and oversight and enforcement.

Citizens deserve better.

We have released a report card on the 24 states that allow for ballot initiatives ‐‐ Ballot Integrity: A Broken System in Need of Solutions. The report card finds that an overwhelming majority of states (22) receive a "D" or "F" and that most initiative states are ripe for continued ballot initiative abuse, fraud, and deception unless significant changes are made through legislative action to clean up the system.

The Ballot Integrity Report Card rates each state on what it currently does and, more importantly, does not do to protect the integrity of the ballot initiative process at every step in the system. It also provides a blueprint for reform that can help states move forward and take much needed action.

Although as progressives, some of us bemoan the process because of stinging losses that roll back rights, citizens hold near and dear to their hearts the right of direct democracy. Love them or hate them, ballot measures are here to stay and inarguably serve an important civic engagement function. Let's not waste our breath on wishing we didn't have to fight to defend so much of what's under attack via ballot measure; instead, let's put our energy into fixing the process.

Many of the reforms discussed by progressives are unconstitutional and therefore a waste of our time in pursuing. For example, there is very little we can do about limiting the amount of money used in campaigns. Ballot measures are not subject to the same electioneering campaign restrictions that candidates are because of their free speech protections.

Furthermore, the right to change state laws through the ballot measure process is a right that should be strengthened through reform that makes the system healthier, not harder. Addressing gaps in the signature gathering process is not intended to diminish the use of ballot measures (as much as some would like this), but rather bring integrity back into the process, no matter what initiative campaign one supports or opposes. These are rules that both sides can and should abide by.

There are three simple things that can be done to dramatically improve the quality of signature gathering and determine what actually qualifies for the ballot:

• We recommend that all states improve their systems by increasing the level of accountability required of initiative sponsors
• More forcefully implementing existing penalties to further deter fraud, and
• Increasing the resources of their Secretaries of State and Attorneys General to identify, stop, and punish any action that undermines the integrity of the system.

State legislatures have the power to create and change the laws that are the most important to protecting the integrity of the ballot measure system. Since Secretaries of State and Attorneys General are responsible for the oversight and enforcement of the ballot measure process they can act as important advocates for reform as they have been in a number of states, but the impetus for change needs to come from the legislature.

Voters deserve to know that initiatives -- being considered -- were collected in legal and reputable ways. They need to be assured that amendments to our statutes and Constitution are free of any abuse, fraud, and deception.

Now is the time for state legislative action on ballot integrity reforms that will serve the citizens they represent before the next election cycle. Only by implementing solutions to the problems that exist will states be able to provide people with a ballot measure process that works for voters instead of against them.