The story of a 60-second radio spot airing in Southern California has been riling up some folks. As the Sacramento Bee reports, the ad features a man chastising his wife for signing a ballot initiative petition, warning her that it could lead to “identity theft.” The ad is being paid for by the labor-backed group, “Californians Against Identity Theft.” The president of a state building trades union acknowledged funding the ad.

Of course the claim in the ad, that signing a ballot petition will lead to identity theft, is silly.  The same information–name and address–one voluntarily discloses on a California ballot initiative petition is readily available on-line or in a phone book; most Facebook and other social media profiles provide considerably more personal information than what is required on ballot petition forms. And of course, publicly available state voter files–and the political parties and consultants who purchase them–have all our personal information, and more.

The admonishing radio ad is clearly just the latest innovative attempt by an organization to have citizens think twice before signing a ballot measure petition.  Efforts to dissuade people from signing petitions have been around for years.  Groups in many states have employed “Think Before You Ink” campaigns as a way to inform potential petition signers of the true intent behind what can be misleading or intentionally deceptive ballot measure titles, especially when a ballot petition is in the hands of a professional signature gatherer.

In most states, there are laws making it illegal to use signatures collected on ballot petitions for other purposes than qualifying ballot measures.  In California, the election code goes one step further, prohibiting felons from serving as signature gatherers.

As someone who has scoured the historical record of ballot measure campaigns across the states, I have never come across a case of identity fraud stemming from the signing a ballot petition. On the other hand, fraudulent signature gathering, as I probed in an edited chapter with Todd Donovan, does occur, though this too is rare.

Efforts to encourage and discourage individuals to sign ballot petitions–irrespective of their content–have been around since the beginning of the initiative process more than a century ago.  In Colorado in 1912, for example, Colorado Fuel & Iron–which was owned by George Gay Gould and John D. Rockefeller–wanted to reverse a bill passed in 1911 by the progressive-controlled legislature that mandated a more protective eight-hour work day for miners.  The industrialists paid signature gathers to successfully qualify the popular referendum. It was reported in the press that many of the women who were paid to circulate the ballot petitions admitted that they thought they were soliciting signatures to support (not reverse) an eight-hour work day for miners.  In addition, there was evidence that many of the signatures were forged, as I document in my 2002 Journal of Policy History article (with Joey Lubinski), “Direct Democracy During the Progressive Era: A Crack in the Populist Veneer?

Duplicitous efforts individuals and groups circulating or trying to prevent the qualification of ballot measures continues apace today and states have a compelling interest to regulate the process.  But there’s no harm in the effort by  “Californians Against Identity Theft” to dissuade people from signing ballot petitions.