'Tis the season for signature-gatherers

Consider this a field guide to that species of political animal often seen in California these days: the professional signature gatherer.

Its habitat is in front of grocery stores and other retail stations, and its call is to passers-by who might be inclined to support Indian casinos, abortion restrictions, term limits or whatever the cause of the moment is. For some, an array of clipboards host causes of many kinds, all of them hoping desperately for those all-important signatures.

In initiative-happy California, the signature gatherer is an important part of the political food chain. That's especially true now, with 40 would-be state propositions in circulation, according to the secretary of state's office.

To get those initiatives on the ballot, their backers must get a certain number of registered voters' signatures by a particular date.

The initiative supporters hire companies to manage the gathering of signatures. Kellen Arno is an associate with one of those companies, Arno Political Associates of Carlsbad in San Diego County.

He explained that his company, once hired, then hires another company to get the signatures.

The gatherers are paid for every legitimate signature they get. The amount can vary, Arno said, from as little as 50 cents to up to $9 or $10 if organizers are running into a deadline to qualify the initiative.

That's the motivation for some of these people to fudge the rules a bit.

What does that mean for voters in the Northern San Joaquin Valley? Beware.

Under the law, they can't exchange something for a signature -- say, money, or a voter registration card.

And when one person is collecting signatures for several would-be propositions or measures, he or she shouldn't mislead a voter into affixing a John Hancock to more than one initiative.

Jerry Polakis, an attorney who lives in Modesto, spends some of his free time chasing down signature gathering misdeeds as part of a California Democratic Party-affiliated group called Fraudbusters.

"It's not good enough to take these guys' answers at face value," said Polakis, who encourages voters to read everything and ask as many questions as possible before signing a petition.

Among the questions voters should ask, he said, is who is supporting the initiative.

"With the forces behind these initiatives, to pass something that may be against the public interest, they're willing to spend money to make it happen," he said.

Signature-gathering deceit is decidedly nonpartisan. Arno, whose group works on ballot measures for causes across the political spectrum, said gatherers are after signatures, not votes.

"The biggest thing people should know is that they can't pressure you to vote," he said. "We only get paid for verified signatures, and that's why we take it so seriously."

That makes him skeptical of claims by watchdogs such as Polakis, who said gatherers in Los Angeles traded food for signatures from homeless people for the initiative to change how California's electoral votes are distributed.

Arno pointed out that unless those indigent residents are registered voters at some address -- a dubious proposition -- the swap wouldn't make much sense.

Complaints about such fraud are a lot more common than actual filed charges. Between 1994 and 2006, the secretary of state's office referred only about 1 percent, or 241, of all election-fraud investigations to prosecutors.

When signature-gathering groups have been dinged in recent years, it's usually been for violations other than misleading voters.

In September, the secretary of state's office charged a Rio Linda woman with falsifying signatures on a petition regarding Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

The woman's take for those phony signatures -- two of which were of dead people -- was $3.75.

But as long as California's elected officials punt on tough choices and special-interest groups have the moxie and the money to push their causes, this species won't be endangered anytime soon.

Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at bvandermeer@modbee.com or 578-2331.