By Tom Carr
Dennis Rodzik catches people coming in and out of the library in Traverse City, asking for signatures to shape new state laws. “Sir, are you a registered voter in the state of Michigan?” he asks a man heading inside. He then leads into the three petitions he’s working at the time.
Rodzik is a paid petition circulator, and election years are busy times for him.
“I’ve always done it part-time because Michigan generally has one to two issues per election cycle to put to the ballot,” he says.
In what’s turning out to be a banner year, at least 11 petitions are currently circulating in Michigan in hopes of giving the voters final say on a change to law or constitution. The issues cover a wide spectrum: such as legalization of marijuana; recall of the governor; collective bargaining for workers and green energy.
There can be good money in getting people to sign, depending on what groups are pushing the issues and how well they’re funded. Generally, the work pays one dollar, sometimes two, per signature. But that may increase to as high as $8 when filing deadlines loom, Rodzik says.
Rodzik’s first petitioning gig was in 1976, when he answered an ad to do it for Michigan’s bottle deposit law. He considers himself a Republican, but he has no qualms with offering his services to liberal causes, as well.
“I’m a constitutionalist so I believe that everybody should have the right to ballot access,” he says.
Rodzik’s been on both coasts this year, asking voters in California, Rhode Island, Maryland and Massachusetts for their John Hancocks. California is a land of opportunity for circulators. It’s often the first place in the country for a topic to make it into the voting booth. Also, circulators can practically count the money when a voter agrees to sit down with a pen and a stack of petitions.
“In California, they’ll sit down at a table and sign all 10 or 20 issues,” Rodzik says. “And we just tell them to keep on writing until they develop writer’s cramp.”
Rodzik, a retiree with a pension from an auto supplier, says someone can earn a living doing this. If they try, though, they’ll have to be able to budget. In non-election years – meaning the odd-numbered years – there’s little, if any, work.
Political consultants have been hiring more and more petitioners in the past couple decades. One reason is the idea that legislators aren’t willing to take up some of the more controversial issues, says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
“The driving force behind the growth in ballot initiatives is the increasing frustration and resentment that voters have for their elected officials,” Schnur says. “So increasingly, voters are looking to take the tools of direct democracy into their own hands.”
This year, an estimated 450 petitions are circulating throughout the country.
Few of those will become law, because it takes a lot more money to pass a ballot issue than to defeat one. As a rule, successful referendums, recalls or propositions start with paid circulators working the sidewalks.
The job has its rewards, but it’s not for everybody. It’s mostly outdoors, so weather can be a factor. Some business owners don’t want petitioners in front of their stores. Plus, a lot of people simply don’t want to sign, says Rick Arnold, CEO of National Voter Outreach in Carson City, Nevada.
“It’s one of those things that’s simple but not easy because you have to be out there, standing, talking, all the time, pretty much repeating the same phrases.”
But professional petitioner Dennis Rodzik is doing it for more than the money.
“It’s just that I love this type of work, because I like to have the issue on the ballot so the people can hear both sides of the argument and then they can vote yes or no.”