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Paying for signatures used to be illegal. Now it's making this Californian rich

Angelo Paparella, whose firm PCI, has organized signature gathering campaigns for many initiatives in Washington state.
Courtesy of Angelo Paparella

You may not have ever heard his name, but Angelo Paparella has had a hand in most of the initiatives on your November ballot.

Over the past 15 years, Paparella’s firm has made more money in Washington elections than initiative king Tim Eyman and his associates.

In a strip mall on the outskirts of Los Angeles in the hills above Malibu, Paparella's small company plays a large role in American democracy. The business of PCI Consultants, Inc., is signature gathering.

"We're the largest company in the country," Paparella said. "We do more signatures than any other firm in the country."

Thousands of temporary workers hired by PCI collect millions of signatures each year. Clipboards and pens in hand, they hunt for the autographs of registered voters.

"Most of the business is California, Washington, Michigan, Ohio and Florida," Paparella said.

Twenty-four states let voters bypass their legislatures and enact laws through ballot initiatives.

"For whatever reason, in this election cycle, the number of petitions that are trying to qualify is the most I've ever seen," he said.


Business is booming for Paparella in Washington and elsewhere. PCI brought in $4 million from Washington and $9 million in California alone, according to campaign-finance reports in the two states.

Paparella has had a mostly progressive or liberal client list. His company, PCI, once stood for Progressive Campaign, Inc. Here in Washington state, in past campaigns, he has worked for the ACLU (marijuana legalization in 2012), teachers unions (class size, among other issues) and Everytown for Gun Safety.

The conservative contrast is Citizen Solutions, the signature-gathering firm that works for Tim Eyman. Citizen Solutions has never earned more than $2.3 million in a year, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. 

‘Like farmworkers following the crops’

To get on the Washington ballot, an initiative needs at least 246,000 voters to sign on the dotted line. (The Washington Secretary of State recommends turning in 325,000 signatures, since 1 out of 5 signatures typically turn out to be invalid.)

Campaigns still have volunteers who panhandle for penmanship because they believe in a cause. But mostly, it's paid workers who get thousands of people to sign ballot petitions.

Many signature gatherers roam from state to state to work different campaigns.

"It's kind of like farmworkers following the crops," Alice Woldt, with Fix Democracy First, said. "A lot of them are really decent people, just struggling to make ends meet."

Woldt's group wants to pass an initiative to call for a constitutional amendment overturning the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and limiting the role of money in U.S. politics.

These hands-on political operatives are paid per signature. Part-time signature gatherer Katie Rubio of Mount Vernon said making a living at it is tenuous.

"If you go early in the morning, you'll catch all the coffee people," Rubio said. The time of the month also matters. "It's extra busy the first week and when people get their food stamps," she said. "Later in the month, they're not at the store so much.

"On a fairly good issue, you should be able to get 100 to 200 signatures a day," she said.

Some signature hunters, or petitioners as they're also called, do better than just make ends meet, at least during the busy season.

"If you're a good petitioner, you're making $20, $30, $40, $50 an hour, depending on where you are and how smart you are," Sherry Bockwinkel of Tacoma said. "It's not a job for everybody."

Bockwinkel has gathered signatures and run a signature company on and off over the years. She also runs a small lamp repair shop in Tacoma.

"It's kind of like being on a fishing vessel," Bockwinkel said of signature gathering. "If they're a really good petitioner, they're working the whole time they're there because that's when the money is running."

There are no limits on the money running through initiative campaigns. A KUOW analysis in July found that most of the $14 million in campaign contributions in support of Washington ballot initiatives this year has come from billionaires, unions and out-of-state interests.

Bockwinkel said the $1 million it typically costs to get enough signatures to qualify for the statewide ballot is cheaper than the millions in lobbying expenses it can take to get a law through the legislature in Olympia.

"There's always a special interest," she said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Signature industry insider and critic Sherry Bockwinkel in her lamp-repair shop in Tacoma.", "fid": "128868", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201608/ladyjohn.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/John Ryan"}]]Signature firm in hot water

While Bockwinkel sees paid signature gathering as an essential part of the initiative process, she is critical of the signature business. It was her complaint that led Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson to go after Tim Eyman and Citizen Solutions, the signature firm Eyman has regularly employed, for allegedly misspending campaign funds.

The attorney general's office is seeking to have Eyman and Citizen Solutions held in contempt of court for not cooperating with its investigation.

An attorney for Eyman told the Associated Press in July that Eyman believed he correctly reported his campaign finances and that he didn't try to hide any improper spending.

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries also penalized Citizen Solutions last year for not paying workers compensation insurance on its part-time signature gatherers. Bockwinkel said most signature firms, including PCI, are dodging those state-mandated payments as well as unemployment-insurance payments in the same way, by treating signature gatherers as independent contractors, not employees.

"Everybody runs their companies the same," she said.

"They're independent contractors," Paparella said of PCI's thousands of petitioners. "They're unsupervised people who can work for multiple companies."

$6 a signature

It used to be illegal in Washington to pay workers per signature.

State officials said it would lead to fraud and erode voters' confidence in the initiative process.

But Bockwinkel filed a lawsuit and got that law overturned in the 1994.

Since then, people who gather voter autographs have been getting paid per signature –sometimes as little as 50 cents, but sometimes as much as $6.

The higher wages draw "heavy hitter" signature workers from other parts of the country.

"Without people like that, a lot of campaigns don't get on the ballot," Bockwinkel said.

Citizens' initiatives started in the 19th century as a revolt against legislatures beholden to railroads and special interests. Some observers of the initiative process say it has strayed from its populist roots.

"There's a real industry that depends upon an active initiative process for its very existence," said Jennie Bowser, a political consultant from Portland, Oregon.

"You also have this self-serving use of the initiative. You could see almost anything on the ballot through that, whatever's going to benefit the corporation or organization that's sponsoring it."

Paparella said critics of the expensive initiative process are missing the point. He said initiatives have made important reforms possible—like assisted suicide and legal marijuana—that would never have made it through state legislatures.

"You can do two things if you don't like the process," Paparella said. "People will stop signing [initiatives], or maybe the legislature will start addressing some of these issues, then there'll be no need for it."

All six of Washington’s statewide initiatives this year relied on paid signature gatherers.

PCI helped four of them get on the ballot, including measures for gun control, a higher minimum wage and privacy protections for seniors and their caregivers.

PCI's clients also included the campaign that spent the most on signature gathering: an initiative to reduce the influence of money on state politics.

A proposed carbon tax and the initiative seeking to overturn Citizens United used other firms. Woldt said her campaign had aimed at using only volunteers to collect signatures as part of its commitment to getting money out of politics, but their volunteers fell short of the minimum number needed to get on the ballot. She said they eventually hired signature collectors directly to fill the gap, bypassing both Paparella and Bockwinkel's firms.

"We saved a lot of money by doing it on our own," she said.

Year started with KUOW: 2009