Paid circulator

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A paid circulator is a person who is paid by the supporters of a ballot measure or candidate to ask people to sign a petition.

Some states have enacted legislation that places restrictions on paid circulation and on paid circulators. The practical effect of these restrictions is that it becomes harder for the supporters of a ballot measure or candidate to collect enough signatures to gain ballot access, since they must jump through extra hoops to be in conformity with the additional legislative restrictions.

Rationales for restrictions

Restrictions on paid circulation are often proposed in a state--either by members of the state legislature, editorial boards of dominant newspapers with strong political opinions, or by advocacy or special-interest groups--after a ballot measure or candidate they disapprove of has been placed on the ballot and been approved by the voters (in the case of a ballot measure) or received votes greater than the margin of victory (in the case of a third-party candidate).

Table set up with petition sheets. Photo credit: Washington Secretary of State

Advocates of additional restrictions on paid circulators typically say that they want additional restrictions because it will ensure a higher degree of valid signatures, reduce the amount of fraud in the signature collection process, and in other ways protect the integrity of the signature collection process.

There is fairly unanimous consent among both ballot measure partisans and ballot measure foes that on the whole, paid circulators are somewhat more apt than volunteer circulators to engage in slipshod or outright fraudulent signature collection practices. This is not to say that all paid circulators collect signatures with a lower rate of validity than those collected by volunteers. On the contrary, there are many famous paid circulators whose signature validity rate is extremely high and who enjoy a high degree of esteem and admiration.

Supporters of populist ballot measures typically believe that the reasons given by powerful state legislators and other advocates of increased restrictions as to why they advocate these restrictions are merely pretextual, and that the real reason these legislators and special interest advocates support additional restrictions is that they have the political objective of reducing the odds that future populist ballot measures or candidates that run counter to the political agendas of powerful established interests will be able to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Types of restrictions

State legislatures have considered--and some of them have adopted one or more of--the restrictions on this list:

  • Requiring circulators to wear a badge identifying them as a paid circulator.
  • Require that the petition they circulate be stamped or printed with words noting that the circulator of the petition is a paid circulator.
  • Require that they file an affadavit or registration form with a state office prior to circulating petitions.
  • Require the circulator to complete a training course administered by the government prior to circulating petitions.
  • Require that the circulator register with a municipal official or police officer prior to attempting to collect signatures in a given political subdivision.

Advocates of increased regulation of paid circulators have also proposed, and in some cases enacted, legislation that:

  • Prohibits supporters of ballot measures or candidates from paying circulators by the signature.
  • Prohibits supporters of ballot measures or candidates from paying more than a set amount per signature. Alaska, for example, currently sets a ceiling for signature payment of $1.00 per signature.

Constitutional challenges

Restrictions on paid circulators have been challenged on the grounds that they violate provisions of the U.S. Constitution or the constitution of the state in which a specific restriction has been enacted.

  • In Meyer v. Grant in 1988, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a Colorado statute making it a felony to pay circulators violated the U.S. Constitution. The Colorado statute, according to the Supreme Court, "abridges appellees' right to engage in political speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments." The Supreme Court specifically argued:
  • "The argument that justification is found in the State's interest in assuring that an initiative has sufficient grass roots support to be placed on the ballot is not persuasive, since that interest is adequately protected by the requirement that the specified number of signatures be obtained."
  • "Nor does the State's claimed interest in protecting the integrity of the initiative process justify the prohibition, because the State has failed to demonstrate the necessity of burdening appellees' ability to communicate in order to meet its concerns."
  • "It cannot be assumed that a professional circulator - whose qualifications for similar future assignments may well depend on a reputation for competence and integrity - is any more likely to accept false signatures than a volunteer motivated entirely by an interest in having the proposition placed on the ballot"
  • "Moreover, other statutory provisions dealing expressly with the potential danger of false signatures are adequate to minimize the risk of improper circulation conduct."

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