Your name's worth $1-$2 to signature gatherers

SOME HAWK several initiatives to maximize their income and say they can get 1,000 signers a week.

Normally, VerNon Van makes the pitch at a table. It's easier to sell the product when customers can pull up a chair and you can just sit and chat with them.

Standing in the main thoroughfare at the annual start-of-summer festival in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, Van kept his bundle of ballot initiatives under one arm and tried a more informal sale: "Excuse me, ma'am, are you a registered Washington voter?"

When the passer-by nodded, he continued: "Well, have I got a petition for you . . ."

Whether it's at a retail store, a festival or even in the line for a movie, this exchange is a familiar one in Washington state this time of year. A California native, Van is a migrant worker of sorts, one of the hundreds of signature gatherers hired to help proposed citizen initiatives qualify for November's ballot.

The five initiative campaigns that are using them this year say paid signature gatherers are a necessary, legitimate way to get the 180,000 signatures needed by July 7. Opponents call them hired guns who have commercialized the initiative process. In order to make enough money to pay their way here, some gatherers end up hawking two, three and sometimes as many as four ballot initiatives at a time.

Secretary of State Ralph Munro said his office has witnessed an increase in signature gatherers juggling petitions, and the practice concerns him.

Critics such as Munro say the practice and its influx of money can corrupt the initiative process. Gatherers such as Eddie Agazarm, who crisscrosses the nation working on initiatives, call it a way of life.

Agazarm, 43, spent four weeks in Washington working for Tim Eyman's anti-tax initiatives, I-722 and I-745, as well as the charter-schools proposal, I-729. During that time, he said, he collected more than 9,000 signatures.

Van, who has also gathered signatures for ballot initiatives in Massachusetts and California, is working for charter schools and I-728, a school-construction proposal.

He said he can get about 1,000 signatures a week but added with an immodest grin, "I'm one of the better ones."

With the campaigns paying between $1 and $2 per signature - the charter-schools measure is on the high end of that range - that can amount to a sizable profit. Professionals often work 12-hour days and live out of their suitcases.

"When we first started noticing these guys about 10 years ago, it was 10 cents a name," Munro said. "People laughed when I said they'd be paying $2 at some point. Look where we are now."

Few signature gatherers are willing to talk to reporters about their business. Some fear threats and intimidation from overzealous opponents. Others fear the misperceptions the public may have about their business.

"Generally, we haven't been portrayed in the best way," said Sherry Bockwinkel, who operates Washington Initiatives Now (WIN), a signature-gathering firm out of Tacoma. "They try to say we're corrupting the system. Give me a break."

In a perfect world, Bockwinkel said, supporters would have enough time to get an initiative on the ballot using only volunteers. But the six months - from January to early July - allotted to gather 180,000 signatures is simply not enough, she contends.

"The fact is, it's extremely difficult to get on the ballot without the paid gatherers," Bockwinkel said. "The time frame is just too short."

Eyman, a Mukilteo businessman behind last year's successful Initiative 695, hired Bockwinkel's firm to gather signatures for this year's proposals. Even though he got I-695 - which cut car-tab fees to $30 - on the 1999 ballot using an all-volunteer base, Eyman said this year he needed more certainty for his initiatives.

"It's a brutal requirement" to get 180,000 signatures, he said. "Last year it was an easy decision to not use paid gatherers. We didn't have the money to hire them."

The going rate per signature, according to gatherers, is $1.50 for I-745 and 85 cents for I-722. The money seems to be a good investment for Eyman, who submitted his first 180,000 signatures for I-722 to the Secretary of State's Office last week.

Workers say they must frequently claim their spot wherever they work that day, usually in front of a retail store, as early as 5 a.m. They often carry more than one petition so they can earn as much money as possible.

"In a way, it is kind of a sale that you're making," Van said. "You've got to have a pitch in mind when you're out there."

It all comes down to the wording and even the body language, workers say. As the faces of the potential signer change, so do the lines a gatherer must use to get them interested in the initiative.

"If I see a family or a mother with some children, I go ahead and mention the schools," Van said, usually asking voters if they're interested in creating charter schools or aiding school construction.

Van's charismatic approach, standing amid a bustling festival crowd, seems to draw more undecided voters than do other gatherers.

Some, who stand outside stores or work the lines at movies and concerts, get the chilly reception normally reserved for panhandlers or telemarketers.

Although most gatherers say they work on issues they care about, they agree that it's mostly a job. Michael Goodwin, a part-time real-estate agent in San Diego, replied to a newspaper ad last summer seeking signature gatherers.

Now he relies on petition drives as his main source of income. In two weeks working for I-745 and I-717, a property-tax proposal, Goodwin said, he earned more than $5,000.

"I paid my way back home. I took care of my bills for next month with this," said Goodwin, 62, who may seek work in Oregon on the way back to California. "This ends July 7, but where do you go from here?"

As the initiatives approach their target number of signatures, many out-of-state gatherers have been told to move on to other states.

Campaigns typically need about $50,000 to hire a firm. Besides WIN, two California firms are hiring gatherers in behalf of Washington ballot initiatives - Arno Political Consulting of Sacramento and National Petition Management of Roseville.

Lisa MacFarlane, the sponsor of I-728, acknowledged that her school-funding proposal was paying for signatures. But she would not disclose which company the campaign hired or provide details about the petition drive.

"We're using them in a limited capacity" to support a volunteer base of gatherers, MacFarlane said. "We're not relying on them. It's just a safety net."

MacFarlane said the public sees the debate over using paid gatherers as a simple choice between a grass-roots campaign and a professional operation. It's not that simple, she contended.

However, two complaints of gatherers offering free food in exchange for signing a petition are resurrecting deep-seated concerns.

Citizens for Real Transportation Choices, a group that's opposing Eyman's transportation proposal, I-745, has organized a "truth squad" to monitor signature gatherers, who they say are misleading and sometimes even bribing voters.

And earlier this month, Munro, the secretary of state, sent a warning to Eyman after the Secretary of State's Office received reports that gatherers for I-722 offered soda and potato chips in exchange for signatures.

Munro said that it was unclear whether the gatherers were hired or volunteers but that he believes paid signature gathering causes people to be motivated more by profit than political causes.

"You can open the door to this kind of problem," he said.

But Eyman saw the situation in another light.

"This guy must be a total idiot," he said of the wayward signature gatherer. "At a dollar a signature, I don't see how he would make any money buying everyone pop and chips."

Andrew DeMillo's phone message number is 206-464-2782. His e-mail address is ademillo@seattletimes.com.

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Tips for voters

You must be a registered Washington voter in order to sign an initiative petition.

Don't sign a petition more than once.

Don't accept any inducements offered by gatherers in exchange for signing a petition.

Read the petition first. Make sure the petition you're signing is the one the gatherer is promoting.

To report violations, call the Secretary of State's Office at 360-586-0400.