Knock, Knock: It Might Soon Get Even Harder to Find Out Who's Sponsoring Ballot Initiatives

By the time San Francisco voters cast their ballots on election day, they've been bombarded with a variety of campaign materials: glossy mailers, newspaper squibs, Op-Eds, evangelizing YouTube videos, clipboard-toting college students, and impassioned volunteers banging on their doors. Theoretically, they've had ample opportunity to make an informed decision.

But when voters sign a ballot initiative, they're acting blindly — often relying on the aforementioned college student or scruffy volunteer to elucidate its meaning. Sometimes, it's not clear who that clipboard-carrier represents. When developer Simon Snellgrove campaigned to put his controversial 8 Washington proposal on last year's ballot — which would have delegated 3.2 acres of contested waterfront land for construction of a high-rise citadel — he omitted both his own name and his company, Pacific Waterfront Partners, from the petition. Instead, Snellgrove dispatched three other parties (among them a construction union and the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition) to sponsor the measure.

It was a crafty, albeit legal move, says North Beach activist Jon Golinger, who led a campaign to oppose the measure (which voters defeated in November). “There are already some end-runs to get around who's truly behind a petition,” Golinger says, noting that shrewd petitioners are rarely stymied by San Francisco's election disclosure laws.

This June, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made it even easier for backers of proposed ballot initiatives to hide their identities. In a 2-1 ruling, the court decided that any such sponsor has a First Amendment right to be anonymous. But voters intent on knowing who they are can go to the City Clerk's office, or peruse campaign finance forms, or search for the official petition notice in a local newspaper.

So far, that hasn't affected the elections code of San Francisco, which still requires petition circulators to wear badges to indicate who, if anyone, is paying them, along with the sponsors' contact information. City officials will continue hewing to that law until the Board of Supervisors instructs them to do otherwise, a Department of Elections spokeswoman says.

But such disclosure laws are by definition imperfect, given that petitioning is a free speech right. If the recent 9th Circuit decision overrides local election law, Golinger says he's not sure the harm would be extraordinary; after all, people like Snellgrove can already pass off highrise development as “neighborhood housing,” if they so desire.

Still, it might allow hordes of influence-peddlers to sneak their obscurely-worded proposals onto future ballots, under cloak of anonymity. And it might lead scores of voters to sign initiatives they later reject, once the mailers have gone out, and the editorials have been penned, and the bill sponsors have all been unmasked.

Granted, it's hard to stop people from signing anyway.

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