The beginning of the 20th century saw Populists, Progressives, and citizen reformers using the three main forms of large scale direct democracy — recalls, ballot initiatives and referendums — to address systematic problems with the status quo power structure in this country and expand political accountability. After World War II, the use of citizen initiatives dropped dramatically as booming populations made gathering sufficient signatures to qualify for the ballot a more daunting task. During the ’50s and ’60s statewide ballot initiatives became rare, and much like today, many of the initiatives that did appear were thanks to big corporate spending. This all changed in the early ’70s, thanks in large part to the California couple Edwin and Joyce Koupal and their People’s Lobby.
Ed and Joyce Koupal were a fairly apolitical middle class couple that after running up against some local, technically legal political corruption became firebrand government reformers and saw direct democracy as the best way to change a broken system. The Koupals didn’t just bring an unmatched level of dedication to reform but they also helped pioneer a critical innovation to grassroots direct democracy. During their 1968 Recall Governor Ronald Reagan drive they created the “tabling” method, which greatly increased the number of petition signatures an organization could gather at one time. From the Citizen Lawmaker by David Schmidt:
It was during this period that he hit upon a method that revolutionized petition campaign strategy. Experimenting with techniques to get the maximum number of signatures in the shortest time, he found that individual petition circulators were inefficient. Going door to door meant that too much time was spent trying to convince each skeptic. Working the crowds with a clipboard also resulted in too many one-on-one confrontations. Furthermore, individual volunteer petitioners working alone were notoriously unreliable (they’d promise to go out petitioning for a certain number of hours, but all too often would find something else to do.) His solution to these problems was “tabling”: the method whereby two (or more) volunteers set petitions on a folding table, and one person shows people where to sign while the other approaches pedestrians and directs them to the table. […] Thanks to Koupal, the petition table became standard equipment for Initiative and Referendum petition circulators throughout the United States. Experienced volunteers can collect up to a hundred signatures per hour using this method.
Eventually the table method was refined to a near science. They outlined the items a team of volunteers needed to have with them, how to dress (no sun glasses, eye contact is important), what questions to ask, and where to place a table (for example, outside the single exit of a store with steady traffic). Ed Koupal even came up with the most optimal way of handing someone a clipboard. From Ordinary People Doing the Extraordinary by Dwayne Hunn and Doris Ober (PDF):
“When you handed someone a clipboard to sign a petition,” [Thomas Quinn, chairman of the California Air Resources Board] said, “you handed it to him at an angle so that the pen rolled into his hand. Once they had the pen, they almost always signed.”
Their first attempt at direct democracy failed to get enough signatures to put a recall of Reagan on the ballot, yet despite getting almost no outside financial support, they still managed to gather an impressive 491,000 signatures in only a few months. This proved to the Koupals that a small group of dedicated volunteers with almost no money could get enough signatures to put an initiative on the ballot in California. With almost no money they succeeded in 1972 in getting the “Clean Environment Act” on the ballot. From the Citizen Lawmakers by David Schmidt:
The entire drive cost only $8,000, at a time when professional petition managers were charging up to $1 million for Initiative campaigns. Of the $8,000, Joyce Koupal had contributed $1,000 from her salary — she had taken a full-time job at a nursing home to support the family while Ed devoted all his energy to the People’s Lobby. Ed Koupal said during this particularly lean period that he would “rather put social justice in the bank than money.”
It was the first time since 1938 that pure volunteer effort had placed a citizen initiative on California’s statewide ballot. Their success and methods helped usher in a large increase in progressive and conservative grassroots ballot initiatives in the ’70s and ’80s.
Ed Koupal made many mistakes and important discoveries in his brief time in political activism (many of these will be discussed in later parts of this series), but he proved how impactful a low cost but innovative and dedicated group of grassroots volunteers could be. The table method revolutionized the way campaigns gather the signatures they need to put something on the ballot and for a while results in progressive rediscovering the important reformist tool of the ballot initiative.