Money Holds Sway Over Gray Davis Recall Initiative

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This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, July 7, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

DAVID ASMAN, GUEST HOST: Organizers of the drive to recall Governor Gray Davis (search) have collected hundreds of thousands of signatures statewide. And the governor's supporters are out collecting signatures, too. But what you don't hear much about is folks on both sides of the Davis issue are sometimes paying cash for a lot of the signatures.

Joining us now, Dane Waters, president of Initiative and Referendum Institute (search). And today's big question — does buying signatures corrupt the process? Dane, are votes being bought?

DANE WATERS, INITIATIVE & REFERENDUM INST.: No, votes are not being bought. It is a long tradition of paying people to actually collect the signatures necessary for these initiatives and recall petitions. You need over one million signatures, and I don't think in any way it's corrupted the process.

ASMAN: Let's just be specific for those who don't know how it works out there. There are some people who get paid $1 a head for each signature they get. Correct?

WATERS: That's correct. You have to collect a million signatures in California to get paid $1 for every signature you collect. And the other thing taking place in the recall effort is that people are actually being paid not to collect signatures. You know, professional signature gatherers who make a living doing this have been paid to stay off the streets to keep the recall effort from making the ballot.

ASMAN: To a lot of people, that would say cash does affect the outcome of these decisions.

WATERS: Well, cash affects whether or not it makes the ballot. It in no way affects the outcome, because Californians are the people who can sign the petition ...

ASMAN: But you can't vote on something unless it gets to the ballot.

WATERS: That is correct. The ends to the means, there is no doubt about it. Without those paid signature gatherers, that issue recall or initiative process or popular referendum would not make the ballot in the state of California.

ASMAN: Do you think on balance, with some of the problems with this referendum and initiative, that they somehow strengthen our Democratic process and, if so, how?

WATERS: I definitely think it strengthens our Democratic process. It is the number one tool the citizens have to serve as a check and balance on elected officials. When lawmakers for whatever reason will not pass certain laws or they pass laws that citizens don't like, the citizens have the initiative process to go in there and serve as a check and balance on their elected officials.

ASMAN: So it shows that you can fight city hall and win?

WATERS: That's true. Without the initiative process in the 24 states, some of the most important reforms we've seen in this country would not have been made possible.

ASMAN: Now, I think of an old warhorse, he's long gone, but Howard Jarvis (search), Proposition 13 — he was a tax cutter in California. And he brought up proposition 13. It won. And Ronald Reagan said that is what started the anti-tax fervor. That's a pretty unflattering picture of Howard Jarvis, but that's really what started the Reagan revolution.

WATERS: It is. Across the country, you saw Proposition 13 (search) clones in Massachusetts and Michigan. It reinvigorated the tax cut movement, and also it reinvigorated the initiative process or the initiative movement across the country.

ASMAN: Since you are in favor of these things, you have to play devil's advocate for me, what are the dangers of the referendum and initiative movements?

WATERS: Well, the downside is that sometimes it does let lawmakers off the hook. If lawmakers in California or in other states just say they don't want to deal with a controversial issue because they realize the citizens will go out there and check the signatures to put it on the ballot, it does let them off the hook. I think that's the biggest downside to the initiative process.

ASMAN: And we have a republic. This is not a complete, clear democracy in the Greek sense of the word. It's a republic. And some people say, “Look, instead of a republic, we're going to have all these tiny, thousands of Democracies all over America.” That's not what our founders had in mind.

WATERS: Well, Thomas Jefferson (search) was a tremendous proponent of the referendum process. He believed that citizens should vote on any changes to their state constitution. The initiative process is not a replacement to representative government, was never designed to be. It is just a check and balance. And I think it has been used 2,051 times in 100 years, and many people would argue that is not an overused process.

ASMAN: And we should emphasize, you do have a check in balance over the initiative and referendum. If it's considered unconstitutional in any way, you can take it up to the Supreme Court, right?

WATERS: That's true. The check and balance on the initiative process are state legislators, who can overturn initiatives if they're past. You have the judicial branch, which can strike down initiatives that are unconstitutional in their face. There are quite a few checks and balances on it, just as the initiative process is a check and balance on some representative government

ASMAN: You can bet that our own John Gibson is going to keep a close eye on the initiative process as it goes on with Gray Davis in California, him being a former Californian. Dane Waters, we thank you very much for coming to see us. Very pleased to have you here.

WATERS: Thanks for having me.

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