Motorist Activism: Should You Start A Petition Drive?

By Jim Baxter, NMA President

Given the frequent disconnect between citizens and their elected representatives, there is often a great deal of difference between what the government is doing and what the public wants the government to do.

This is most evident when the government passes and enforces laws that primarily benefit the government, expand its powers, and rewards public employees; this at the expense of everyone else.

In some states and among many local communities, the general public can circumvent unresponsive elected officials through a petition process where unpopular laws are repealed or popular laws passed, by a vote of the citizenry. It’s also a process where majorities can throttle unpopular minorities.

No state is more notorious for its “Initiative and Referendum” antics than is California.

Every election cycle sees multiple issues placed on the ballot, many involving millions of dollars in costs for collecting petition signatures, promoting, or opposing, referendums and follow-on legal battles.

At the other end of the spectrum are small villages with a few hundred residents where 100 signatures can put an issue on the ballot.

Recently, the dichotomy between government interests and citizen interests has come to a head over the use of ticket cameras and other automated devices intended to generate traffic citations. (Not news to anyone who even occasionally reads this blog.) Contrary to official proclamations that these ticket machines are being used to enhance traffic safety the general public knows they serve no purpose but to generate revenue for government coffers.

Eventually, regular elections will eliminate many of the elected and appointed parasites that promote this form of government extortion. Still, for many activists this is not fast enough — nor explicit enough — to forcefully stop the scourge of ticket cameras.

They have taken to circulating petitions to put this issue in front of the voting public — even in jurisdictions where referendums are not allowed on the ballot!

So, is this the route you might want to take in your state or your local community?

First, take a reality check.

  • Is it legally possible to place an issue on the ballot through petition?
  • If it is, what are the legal requirements?
  • Does the language of the proposal have to be approved before it can be placed on the ballot?
  • Who can circulate the petitions and how many signatures are necessary?
  • What form must the petition take and what information must be gathered from each person signing the petition?
  • When can the petitioning begin and when must it be completed?

Once you have a handle on the legalities and requirements it’s time to assess your capabilities and resources.

  • How many supporters do you have right now?
  • How much money do you have to work with right now?
  • Do you or any of your supporters have experience with gathering petition signatures, connection with the news media, affiliations with other groups that could lend a hand, computer skills, or the capability to provide seed money to get the project off the ground?

Many people are not aware that large petition campaigns, usually at the state level, involve paid signature-gatherers. Sometimes devoted volunteer groups can get the job done, but that’s the exception to the rule. Gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures is a major undertaking involving thousands of people and, potentially, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.

Local community petition efforts are a different matter.

A few hundred or a few thousand signatures may be all that is required to get an issue on the ballot. This is a more feasible goal for a group of dedicated volunteers.

However, always keep in mind the 90-10 rule. Ten percent of the members will end up doing 90 percent of the work. This is not an exaggeration.

The last point; Don’t start down this road unless a sober and frank analysis indicates that you have, or will have, the resources and capabilities to gather the signatures and jump through the legal hoops that will put your issue on the ballot.

Failure to do so will not only be wasteful, expensive, and frustrating for everyone involved, it could also be harmful to your original goal. Your failure will be viewed as a victory for the opposition.

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