COLUMBUS, Ohio — Thousands of hastily scribbled signatures fill boxes in the basement of Ian James’ 7,800-square-foot restored Victorian home in the historic Franklin Park neighborhood. James needs these names to win a place on Ohio’s November ballot for a measure to legalize medical and recreational marijuana.
But the political consultant isn’t just gathering the signatures. He came up with the idea for the measure. And he recruited a lawyer to draft a constitutional amendment that would put Ohio’s future marijuana market in the hands of only 10 growers — an arrangement that critics are calling a monopoly.
Meanwhile, he plans to pay his own firm nearly $6 million to run the campaign.
Though James is an extreme example, he’s a member of a much larger and little-known class of professionals that form what could be called Ballot Measure Inc.: a powerful electoral-industrial complex funded by moneyed interests that belies the quaint notion of “citizen democracy” that such efforts are assumed to represent.
Active in the 26 states that have citizen-initiated ballot measures, the network of pollsters, direct mail specialists, lawyers, consultants, signature gatherers and voting data whizzes were paid at least $400 million for 85 statewide measures across the country in 2014, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of state records. In presidential election years, state and local measures are a billion-dollar industry, said ballot initiative expert David McCuan.
The growth of the industry means that often only those with money can afford to get into the game. In some big states, such as California, where political consultant David Townsend estimates a controversial measure costs at least $25 million to pass, paid signature gatherers are now virtually a requirement to get on the ballot.
And this process of direct democracy sometimes appears to directly benefit only special interests: such as the Native American tribes who gave $107 million in 2008 to win measures expanding their slot machine operations in California; the agribusiness giant Monsanto, which gave $10.7 million last year to block labeling of genetically modified foods in Colorado and Oregon; or the plastics industry, which is currently fighting a plastic bag ban in California.
“The process has been captured by interests,” said McCuan, a Sonoma State University professor. “It’s been professionalized. It’s expensive.”
This has created a market filled with the promise of profits for those willing to work as mercenaries for a cause — or even come up with their own cause. James isn’t the only one known to have done so. The California lottery was famously created by signature gatherers in 1984, and a Nevada political consulting firm came up with and successfully campaigned for anti-union measures in multiple states, beginning in 2010.