Arithmetic of Recall Petition Signature Gathering

I’ve been quoted as saying it’s essentially impossible for volunteers to gather enough signatures to force a recall election for the governor.  I’m sure it sounds as if I’m disparaging the volunteer spirit, or the importance of commitment in bringing political change.  But I was really just trying to make a technical point:  collecting signatures for a recall is different from other kinds of petition drives.  I’ll try to explain.

The basic problem is the fraction of signatures needed:  25% of the gubernatorial vote.  (This post refers entirely to Michigan law; it applies to a greater or lesser extent in other states which permit recall elections.)  Understand, it’s not the number of signatures needed, but the fraction.  That is, an all-volunteer effort might be able to collect 160,000 signatures statewide to place an issue on the ballot – 5% of the gubernatorial vote – if they were sufficiently motivated by the underlying issue.  But if that same organization tried to collect the 22,000 signatures needed to recall a state senator, they would fail.

That doesn’t mean recall campaigns are impossible, only that they can’t be all-volunteer.  In order to succeed, a substantial amount of money would be needed, much of which will be needed to pay some of the circulators.

I’ll try to explain why.

Let’s define some ideas.  First, for every potential recall campaign, some percentage of the registered voters will simply refuse to sign, when given the opportunity.  In the case of an extremely unpopular official (say, caught in a financial scandal) the percentage willing to sign might be as high as 90%.  (Some people are hostile to recalls on principle, while others are afraid that people like me will gather their names and commit nefarious acts upon them.  I’ve never figured out what that would be.)

For somebody who is run-of-the-mill unpopular, as Rick Snyder is today, the percentage willing to sign when presented a chance is around 60%.  For somebody who is quite popular and represents a district of congenial partisan balance – such as Gretchen Whitmer – the percentage willing to sign might be as low as 30%.  (Some people will sign almost anything presented to them.)

Every petition drive starts with a committed core of people, who sign the petition themselves, and then circulate it among their immediate circle of friends, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow members of like-minded groups.  Collecting those signatures is easy, and helps create a feeling that the whole process will be manageable.  But the reality is that only a small fraction of the total electorate falls within these circles; the larger the group of volunteers, the more they find themselves overlapping socially and geographically.

After taking the low-hanging fruit, volunteers turn their attention to public events, rather than door-to-door.  They overwhelmingly prefer to collect their signatures by sitting at tables or circulating with clipboards at public places.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First, door-to-door work is strenuous.  Second, door-to-door doesn’t initially produce as many signatures per hour as a public event.   Third, if any significant number of volunteers actually started canvassing their own neighborhoods, they would quickly trip over one another, since people sufficiently enthusiastic to serve as volunteers tend to cluster geographically.  Unless there’s a strong hand coordinating the areas canvassed – and volunteers don’t react well to strong guidance – each person will tend to choose a small nearby area without regard to what has already been done.  Fourth, it’s essentially impossible for volunteers to keep detailed accurate records, since doing so requires training, close supervision, and effective feedback.  Without detailed records, it’s impossible to direct the effort away from areas which have already been worked and toward areas which are untouched.

As a result, we can assume that after collecting signatures from their immediate friends and neighbors, an all-volunteer effort will confine its activity almost exclusively to collecting signatures in public places.  If they do, they soon discover that the pool of voters who appear at such places – and are willing to stop to sign petitions – is limited to perhaps 50% of all voters.  If half the eligible voters don’t come to such events, and many of those who do aren’t willing to sign, the total potential number of signers at such events is roughly 25% of the registered voter pool, or about 1.5 times the number of signatures needed for a recall petition.

At first blush, that number seems auspicious – just convince EVERYBODY at EVERY event to sign your petition, and you’ll have enough.  But there are practical problems with working public events.

First, because recall petitions must be divided by township and city, a substantial number of signatures will be invalid because they will be written onto the wrong petition, especially if the petition sheets are overseen by untrained volunteers.

Second, it’s not that 50% of the voters go to every event, but to some event, which means you need to cover many events over an extended period of time – which can’t be done consistently with unpaid volunteers.

Third, as the drive continues into a second and third month, a larger and larger fraction of the signatures gathered will turn out to be duplicates – people who have already signed at some other location.  This is particularly pernicious because under Michigan law, turning in the same name twice results in NEITHER signature being counted, so if you reach a point where 10% of your signatures are duplicates, for every 100 signatures you gather, you’re only adding 80 net to your valid total.

Fourth, as you continue to work public events, your volunteers will begin to perceive that “everybody has already signed”, because a larger and larger fraction of people will tell you so, or tell you that they’ve already refused.  The efficiency of collection drops by 30% and then 50% as you pursue the few remaining fish in your pool.

If 10% of all signatures gathered turn out not to be registered (which is typical) and 10% are collected on the wrong sheet (because the voter doesn’t know their township or city) and 20% are rejected as duplicates (meaning 10% sign twice), you’d have to gather 1.24 million raw signatures to have 800,000 valid ones – with no margin for error.  Collecting 800,000 raw signatures would take an immense effort, but going beyond that number would become progressively harder and harder.

The result of these factors is that the practical maximum for signature gathering at public events is somewhere around 10% to 15% of the gubernatorial vote, or roughly half what’s needed for a recall petition.  As you approach 15%, everything combines to slow you down:  the duplicate rate rises, the volunteers become frustrated, the crowds become less sympathetic, and the daily collection rate plummets.  Taking the obvious steps like adding more people, covering more events, or staying longer, doesn’t solve the problem.

The only solution I know is organized, door-to-door coverage.  And that isn’t a solution that can be implemented by pure volunteers.

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