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Criminal Justice

Chesa Boudin Recall Campaign Featured Exceptionally High Costs for Signature-Gathering

Written by Anna TongPublished Apr. 19, 2022 • 9:04am
A California voter signs petitions outside Gus’s Market on Jan. 13, 2022. | Camille Cohen

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A very Californian experience is to go about one’s business at the grocery store only to be intruded on in the parking lot by a chirpy, clipboard-wielding person saying, “Hi! How do you feel about…” 

This is the business of petition circulating, and it’s a big moneymaker.

San Francisco and California’s direct democracy structure allows nearly anybody to put initiatives and recalls on the ballot, leading to a second very Californian experience: staring at an absurdly long ballot, wondering what in the world one is voting on.

This year’s two San Francisco recalls have many parallels: national attention, controversial politicians and passionate volunteers. But one thing they differ on is the amount of money it took to get the recalls on the ballot: half a million dollars for the school board recall vs. almost $1 million for the DA recall, according to campaign finance data.

At nearly $12 per submitted signature, the Boudin recall on June’s ballot has the highest per-signature costs in recent San Francisco history. It’s about 70% more expensive than the school board recall’s cost-per-signature (this is if you count all three school board recalls together as one signature. If you count each school board member separately, as is technically correct, the DA recall would be over five times the cost per signature).

The per-signature cost also eclipsed the Juul-sponsored vaping ballot measure from November 2019, formerly the most expensive per-signature ballot initiative in recent SF history, according to campaign finance data.

The successful Boudin recall initiative had about 25% volunteer-collected signatures, according to recall spokesperson Lilly Rapson. The rest of the effort was outsourced to 2020 Ballcamp, a petition signing powerhouse.

That's in contrast to the school board recall, who ran the paid signature gathering operation themselves, hiring “freelancers and then small signature gathering firms” to keep costs low, said Siva Raj, one of the recall leaders. They also had volunteers who gathered 40% of the signatures, including Man Kit Lam, who personally gathered over 12,000 signatures.

The vast majority of ballot initiatives rely on farming out the signature gathering process to a company similar to 2020 Ballcamp, said Nick Warshaw, a campaign finance expert at Loeb & Loeb. "It’s really rare to do what the school board recall did," he said. "It is a surprisingly complex process and you have to stick to certain formats and rules."

If the Chesa recall committee had wanted to bring down signature-gathering costs, they likely could have, said longtime local political analyst David Latterman.

People protesting for the recall of D.A. Chesa Boudin rally outside a press conference in Potrero Hill on Nov. 23, 2021. | Camille Cohen

“It’s possible the signature-gathering company knew [the recall Chesa committee] had a ton of money, and they jacked up the price,” Latterman said.

Even more, given the current focus on crime, obtaining signatures for a crime-related initiative should have been a slam dunk, said Latterman.

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Indeed, a job posting online is paying $8 per signature for a ballot initiative to allow sports wagering, but only $3 per signature for an initiative to recall George Gascon, Los Angeles’ progressive district attorney who is facing a similar recall attempt.

2020 Ballcamp did not return multiple requests for comment.

Richie Greenberg, who ran a competing, low budget signature initiative that failed to qualify for the ballot, was able to get 49,611 signatures at $3.37 per signature. Greenberg attributed the low cost to not having paid signature gatherers, only a volunteer staff of 26 that relied on sending snail mail and engaging in online marketing, in addition to in-person signature signing at farmer's markets.

Outsourced signature-gathering companies like 2020 Ballcamp have different tactics: instead of using passionate volunteers to educate and find the voters who will care, they will rely on on-demand workers and tried-and-true tactics to get people to sign petitions as quickly as possible. One website online for professional signature gatherers advises petitioners never to answer more than two questions about a petition because those people “never sign petitions” and to “cut off anybody who wants to chat” to be efficient.

And with the clock ticking on submitting thousands of signatures, the pay-to-play method is worth it for those who have the money, Latterman said.

“It’s what happens when a guy hands you a million dollars, and you don’t want to have to worry about it,” he said.

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