Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections president says firm did hire outside help but mostly had volunteer assistance of county residents
During the Aug. 29 Sarasota County Commission public hearing on changes the board has proposed to the Sarasota County Charter regarding citizen-initiated petition drives, three of the commissioners commented on “paid petition gatherers.”
As he discussed the changes for which the commission will seek voter approval in November, Commissioner Michael Moranreferenced “a couple of topics” on the agenda later that day. However, he never named the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections or Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino, both of whose petition drives the board was to address that afternoon. (See the related stories in this issue.)
In arguing for passage of the board’s own amendments, Moran said, “If you ask me, the intent of this is local citizens — local citizens— that are incredibly passionate about a topic” getting a measure on the ballot through a petition drive.
Those citizens, he continued, gather signatures of registered voters and then take their petitions to the Supervisor of Elections Office for review, to ascertain the signatures’ validity. If organizers gain the necessary number of signatures to satisfy the Charter requirement, Moran added, then the issue goes on a ballot. “That is not what is going on here.”
“What is really going on,” Moran said, “is a very small group of wealthy people — political activists — that spent an incredible amount of money and had people come from Washington, D.C., and Nevada and California, stand in our streets and in front of our shopping centers and, in an incredibly small amount of time, got a lot of signatures and pushed some items on the ballot.” Moran added, “I don’t think that’s appropriate … not for any party affiliation.”
“The intent of any of [the citizen-initiated Charter amendment petition drives] is not to buy your way onto a ballot,” Moran stressed.
Once more, Moran mentioned “paid petition gatherers” as he discussed the board’s decision to seek an increase from 5% to 10% for the number of registered voters needed to sign petitions to put a citizen-proposed Charter amendment before voters for consideration.
Chair Nancy Detert pointed out that she qualified to run for office on two occasions by gathering the necessary number of signatures of registered voters in lieu of paying a filing fee.
“I disagree with only the wealthy [being able to] get signatures,” she added. “I’m not wealthy.”
She had seen “people from out of state” standing in front of the courthouse in downtown Sarasota, trying to gather signatures on petitions, Detert continued, emphasizing that she knew they were not local residents.
Earlier during the discussion, Commissioner Alan Maio told his colleagues he had been approached by paid petition gatherers. “In some instances,” he continued, “not all instances, it’s pretty horrible what they’re saying to people to get a signature.”
The Sarasota News Leadersubsequently learned that most of the board members’ comments were directed at the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE). That nonprofit is seeking voter approval of a Charter amendment that would change how the commissioners are elected. Instead of all voters being able to cast ballots for every commission candidate during an election, voters in each of the five board districts would select a representative just from their district. The proposed amendment won County Commission approval on Aug. 29 to appear on the Nov. 6 General Election ballo
When Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck — a SAFE board member — made a presentation to the commissioners on Aug. 29 about the SAFE initiative, he acknowledged the difficulty of getting even 5% of the county’s registered voters — as required by the county Charter — to sign petitions. “It becomes virtually necessary to do that,” he added of paying people to help.
In a follow-up email exchange, Kindra Muntz, president of SAFE, wrote the News Leaderthat SAFE did use two different firms to assist with its petition drive for single-member districts.
Nonetheless, Muntz stressed, “We had a LOT of local volunteer petition-gatherers from organizations such as these Coalition Partners: http://www.keepdemocracysafe.org/coalition-partners.”
As SAFE’s website notes, those partners were the Sarasota Springs Community Association, Control Growth Now, the Sierra Club, Citizens for Sarasota County, Nation Group of Sarasota and Bradenton, Florida Veterans for Common Sense, Progressive Sarasota and Action Together Suncoast.
In her Sept. 1 email, Muntz explained, “We were striving for a goal of March 16, 2018 completion of our petition-drive — in order to be able to hold a Special Election at the end of June to benefit candidates of both political parties in November, 2018 [her emphasis], but realized we couldn’t do it with local volunteers alone, especially after Hurricane Irma in 2017 …” She added, “So two petition-firms were highly recommended, and we used one in the fall and early 2018,” and another from Feb. 24 to March 24, “to attempt to achieve our goal. Even with extra help, and even as our volunteers continued to gather petitions, we were unable to achieve the March 16 deadline.”
Muntz pointed out that after SAFE realized it would not make its self-imposed March 16 deadline, “we stopped using [the second firm] and finished the petition drive with our own local volunteers — who had been working on the drive all along as well.”
Muntz also noted that, “with ongoing support from our local volunteers [her emphasis], we achieved the June 22 deadline to qualify us for the ballot in November.
“It was a worthy effort!”
On Sept. 3, Muntz provided the News Leaderwith information from the firm that hired petition gatherers to work in the county from November 2017 through February of this year. Part of the people were based out of the firm’s Tampa office, she pointed out, while others were Sarasota County residents.
The president of that firm, Angelo Paparella, of PCI Consultants Inc., wrote the following in an email to Muntz, which she shared with the News Leader: “NOTE: it only matters that the voters [who] SIGNED the petition were Sarasota voters.” He added that “who circulated [the petitions] is missing the point. That [is] why the US Supreme Court said you can’t restrict circulators to be registered voters of the locale.”
Paparella’s firm is headquartered in Los Angeles, the News Leader learned.
As for the other firm, which SAFE used briefly, Muntz noted in a follow-up email to the News Leader on Sept. 5, “A couple of their lead organizers came from elsewhere, but they hired local stakeholders to collect petitions with them.”
Muntz added, “I think the whole issue of having paid petition help is a red herring. Campaigns do that all the time.” She continued, “The real concern is not whether campaigns use any paid petition gatherers along with their volunteers to help gather petitions, but why is the Sarasota County Commission trying to SILENCE the voices of the voters by DOUBLING the petition requirement, SHORTENING the time to gather petitions to [one-and-a-half years], thus making it ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to put any amendment on the ballot by petition initiative in the future [her emphasis]!” Muntz was referring to the amendments the commission itself will have on the Nov. 6 ballot.
In its research this week, the News Leader found a June article by Washington State Secretary of State Kim Wyman that addressed the issue of paid petition drives. “Paying signature-gatherers,” Wyman wrote, “is legal under the U.S. Constitution.” A unanimous 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision — Meyer v. Grant — threw out a Colorado ban on paying signature-gathers, she added, “finding that the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments’ protections of free political expression.”
Among his remarks on the issue during the Aug. 29 discussion, Sarasota County Commissioner Maio did concede the “legal right” of petition drive organizers to hire people to gather signatures.
Paying for signatures a decades-old business
Going back to 1998, according to a Washington Post column written that year by David Broder, “at least six major firms” that gathered signatures for a fee already were based in California and Nevada and “operating across the country as far away as Massachusetts and Florida.”
An April 2016 report by Ben Bradford for California Counts — a collaboration between Capital Public Radio and three radio stations for coverage of the 2016 California elections — said, “The business of signature-gathering has become a multi-million dollar fixture of California politics. Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio says this is the only way to qualify an initiative.”
The report added, “‘There hasn’t been an all-volunteer ballot measure [in California] that’s actually made it to voters since 1988,’ says Maviglio. ‘So you need these folks that can stand around in front of Target and Walmart and get your signature. Otherwise, it can’t be done.’”
Nonetheless, the report noted, “The industry has been criticized for essentially putting a bounty on each name. Critics say it incentivizes signature-gatherers to mislead people about what they’re signing, and since they’re independent contractors, the companies aren’t liable.”
The report also pointed out that the payments to firms have been controversial.