Last summer, Thomas Hendrix canvassed the sidewalks of Denver, hustling up signatures for the petition drive that got Amendments 15 and 16 on the ballot in November's election. The amendments, pushed by Gary Boyce's Stockman's Water Company, would have required flow meters on pumps and payments for water that farmers had previously used for free in the San Luis Valley. While Hendrix successfully roped in a few hundred signatures, today he's waiting for one more--on a paycheck for his efforts. Hendrix is one of about twenty professional petition carriers who worked area streets last July and claim they weren't fully paid for their work. "I've been doing this kind of work since 1989, and it's the first time something like this has happened," Hendrix says from his home in Lake Elsinore, California.
Last June, Jim Brandon, who led the Stockman's campaign, hired National Voters Outreach, a company that provides canvassers for petition drives nationwide. An NVO subcontractor, John Woodruff, recruited Hendrix and his fellow pro signature gatherers, who went to work in Denver. According to Hendrix, traveling from state to state with clipboard in hand is typical of the itinerant petitions trade. "We're kind of like vagabonds," Hendrix says. Four or five co-workers shared a hotel room during their Denver stint.
That Hendrix and his ilk can travel the nation working on any state's ballot initiatives might appear unseemly, but it's not illegal in Colorado. The state does not have a residency requirement for petition circulators; they need only be registered voters for their work to be accepted by the secretary of state's office. To meet this stipulation, migrant circulators simply register to vote when they arrive in Colorado--even though they'll be long gone by election day.
Now Hendrix and his co-workers say they're owed somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000--and they're not having much luck collecting their bread. The list of parties claiming "it's not me" includes Brandon, NVO and a couple of traveling sub- and sub-sub-contractors. In an attempt to get the money they're due, Hendrix has formed a ragtag collective dubbed the Initiative Circulators Union, in hopes of gaining some clout. Over the past few months, members of the group have logged numerous calls to NVO, Stockman's Water and Brandon, hoping to pressure someone to pay.
Depending on the issues and who is funding the ballot initiatives, collectors are paid anywhere from fifty cents to several dollars per autograph. Ross Perot's Reform Party, Hendrix says, paid $4 a pop in its petition drive of 1992. The pay rate for the Stockman's bills was $1.75 per signature. These sums can add up for a skilled collector.
"There are some of us that make a lot of money at this," says Dave Rubin, who claims he once averaged $1,000 a day working crowds at a festival in Chicago. His take in Colorado was around $300 a day.
"I had work almost all year last year," Hendrix says, "and there are more and more people that do this, as special interest groups need more and more signatures for getting things on the ballots. It's not just statewide issues, it's local things, too--to recall mayors and people from city councils, disputes over picking up trash or growth issues." Volunteers, he says, "can't get enough signatures. They're not professionals.
"You have to be a congenial person, good with people, and you can't be shy," Hendrix says. "And you have to have the power of persuasion. You get one person going, and then you get, like, five people signing at once. You create a frenzy to get more and more signatures so you can make more money."
But for Hendrix and his mates, following the money trail of back pay has been as difficult as understanding the language on some of the initiatives they pass around.
"Our agreements were with Jim Brandon," says John Lubitz, a spokesman for Stockman's Water, "and my understanding is he paid. We're sympathetic to their situation, but we're outside that loop. There's nothing we can do for them."
"A check was written for all those signatures," Brandon says. He says the problems hinge on Secretary of State Vikki Buckley's rejection of about thirty percent of the signatures gathered by the complaining parties.
To be considered valid, signatures must meet a number of requirements--some of them spelled out on the petitions themselves. If a signer leaves out any required information on a petition, the signature is not accepted. A signature is kicked off if information on a petition doesn't match a signer's voter registration card. Signatures of unregistered voters aren't accepted. The state does make allowances for those who sign with shortened versions of their full names or who leave out apartment numbers and other minor details. Petitioners themselves can also invalidate a petition by filling out information for a signee or removing the original staples holding a petition together.
"Colorado is probably the most difficult state in the country," when it comes to accepting signatures, says Ed Cardwell, an NVO subcontractor in charge of Woodruff's subcontracting work on the Stockman's petition drive. "We do twice as many signatures as are required in Colorado so we can comply with the secretary of state's very stringent standards."
"Some carriers turned in non-valid signatures and expected to get paid, and they didn't," Brandon says. "But that's the way the world works. It's tough here in Colorado."
"A lot of these guys are not very detail-oriented, so they're sloppy," Cardwell says. "John Woodruff probably turns in the sloppiest paperwork I've ever seen in my life. You have to do a lot of work to clean it up. You don't get paid for sloppy work, and it's impossible to be perfect."
"The problem is between the subcontractors and the carriers," says Susan Johnson, an NVO coordinator who directed the Colorado campaign, "and they need to settle it." There were petitions, she notes, "that were basically trash, that we could not use. We deal in commodities, and we pay only for good things. If we pay for signatures that are bad, we get bad press and we shoot ourselves in the foot."
But the signature collectors dispute the charges that their work was too shoddy for Colorado's secretary of state--who had plenty of her own problems processing paperwork for the election. "Cardwell claimed the validity rate was low, and I'm quite sure it wasn't," Dave Rubin says. "Validity is a big issue here in California, too, and I check these things and know how to keep the rates up. He says there were that many cross-offs, and that's not a valid claim. I checked them."
Hendrix and Rubin think the culprit may be Cardwell. "It's clear that he didn't pay my crew chief," says Rubin, referring to Woodruff, "and when I called him about it, he was quite nasty to me." According to Rubin, Cardwell "attacked" a Colorado petitioner seeking payment, throwing the worker against a wall and choking him.
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"I escorted somebody out of my office because they were being rude," says Cardwell, a twelve-year veteran of the petition trade now living in Florida. "There was no fight, and I didn't throw anybody against the wall. He went to punch me, and I held him against the wall. His feet were dangling, but that's okay. I didn't hurt the guy."
Cardwell says he's owed around $7,000 from Brandon and that he's in the same position as the petitioners. He says Brandon eventually paid some circulators but didn't pay him. "I'm not happy, either," Cardwell says. "I haven't knowingly cheated or stole from anyone."
Woodruff also denies responsibility and refuses to comment any further, saying he wants to stay out of an affair that won't get resolved to anyone's satisfaction.
And Hendrix and his John Hancock hunters are losing hope of ever seeing the money they're seeking. "It bothers me," Hendrix says, "that we can't go to some agency of the government and say, 'Look, this is the voting process--look at what's going on.' There's corruption here, and it needs to be investigated. But people don't care if it's not in their backyard. They don't care." He is sure of one thing, though: "We're getting ripped off.