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Ballot initiatives scale up for post-lockdown push to gather signatures

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Ballot initiatives scale up for post-lockdown push to gather signatures

  • Garry Knight/Flickr

Since ending a brief hiatus caused by the coronavirus outbreak, campaigns for three ballot initiatives have ramped up their hiring of petition circulators over the past several weeks in preparation for their final drive for the November ballot.

Campaigns seeking to legalize recreational marijuana, loosen sentencing laws and raise income taxes on wealthier Arizonans to fund K-12 education scaled down their signature-gathering efforts in March as the state, like much of the rest of the country, largely shut down in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since early April, however, the campaigns have been actively gathering signatures, and they're hiring more petitioners every day. The expiration of Gov. Doug Ducey's stay-at-home order and the end of the day Friday is likely to fuel their efforts as more businesses open and more people go out in public.

"From the day we went back into the field, every day has gotten better for us. And I think that the order being lifted and more retail locations being open and more eating establishments being open only means more people are out in the field," said Drew Chavez, owner of the signature-gathering firm Petition Partners, which is working on all three campaigns.

Stacy Pearson, a consultant for all three of the campaigns, said they are all on pace to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in the general election. Each needs to collect 237,654 valid signatures by July 2 to make it onto the ballot. In practice, the campaigns will collect tens of thousands more than the minimum to ensure they have enough of a cushion to protect against invalid signatures and legal challenges.

"Both campaigns, their funders are committed to making sure the circulators have all the resources they need to gather signatures in the next 49 days," Pearson said.

Smart and Safe Arizona, which seeks to legalize recreational marijuana, is the closest to its goal, Pearson said. That campaign began collecting signatures around Labor Day in 2019.

Invest in Education, which would boost school funding and teacher pay by imposing a 3.5% income tax surcharge for individuals earning more than $250,000 and couples earning more than a half million dollars, is on pace to make the ballot as well, Pearson said. Ditto for the Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act, which would reduce Arizona's harsh sentencing laws, which require inmates to serve at 85 percent of their sentences. Those campaigns didn't start as early as the marijuana campaign and don't have as many signatures, Pearson said, but are still in good shape.

Pearson wouldn't provide estimates of how many signatures each campaign has already collected.

From March 28 to April 7, the Smart and Safe, Invest in Education and Second Chances campaigns went on hiatus and didn't hire a single petition circulator as social distancing rules went into effect, the foot traffic at businesses and public places that initiative campaigns rely on dwindled, and the campaigns awaited word on whether the courts would permit them to collect signatures online, which state law allows for candidates but not citizen initiatives.

Since April 8, when the campaigns resumed hiring, they've amassed rosters of petition circulators that are several hundred deep. Invest in Education has hired more than 300 petitioners since April 8. Smart and Safe has hired more than 400, and Second Chances has brought in around 500. Petition Partners, Grassroots Advocates and Arizona Signature Solutions – the latter two are working only on the marijuana and sentencing reform campaigns – have registered nearly 1,300 paid petitioners with the state.

The Arizona Supreme Court on Wednesday shut the door on the campaigns' hopes to collect signatures online through the state's E-Qual system, a widely expected outcome. But after spending the past six weeks hiring circulators, the three ballot initiatives may not need online signatures anyway.

The loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the restaurant, hospitality and other industries has also provided a deep labor pool for the initiative campaigns. Chavez boasted that Petition Partners provides "safe, quality jobs to offer people who are having a really tough time not only keeping their job but finding another job."

Volunteers are also lending a hand in at least one case. The Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, is urging its members to volunteer for the Invest in Education campaign. Joe Thomas, the AEA's president who is working on the campaign's volunteer field efforts, said he's mailing petitions to members and asking them to collect signatures in their households or from the people they interact with regularly.

Thomas likened the volunteer effort to the original Invest in Education campaign in 2018, which relied heavily on striking teachers to circulate petitions.

"I've seen educators in action," he said. "We still have more time now than we had then. We did all that signature gathering in – there were six weeks on the clock, but we really did it in about four weeks."

Social distancing guidelines and the lockdown measures Ducey enacted in response to the coronavirus outbreak have forced the campaigns to change the way they collect signatures.

Until recently, the campaigns have been limited in where they could collect signatures. Libraries, restaurants, retail establishments and other retail businesses have been closed, and many people have largely stayed indoors, limiting the foot traffic that petitioners rely on as they try to collect signatures. Medical marijuana dispensaries have remained open, providing a popular place for petitioners to set up shop.

Petition circulators have gone to peoples' doors wearing masks and gloves, setting their clipboard on the doorstep and then stepping back so the voters can sign. While circulators have still engaged in door-to-door canvassing, they also started doing things like reaching out to voters via text message and making appointments to come to their homes. Before petitioners hit a neighborhood, they give residents a heads up several days in advance through digital marketing and door hangers.

With Ducey's stay-at-home order set to expire on Friday, signature gatherers will have much more fertile ground to work with as the ballot initiatives enter their home stretch. Chavez said the campaigns have good corporate partners who are giving petitioners access to strip malls and coffee houses.

Chavez's company provides masks and gloves for anyone who wants them, though he acknowledged that circulators aren't required to wear masks and that he leaves the decision up to each person.

Some petitioners only collect one signature per petition sheet, starting anew with a fresh one after each person signs. Petitioners hand their clipboards to voters so they can sign, then wipe it down and throw away the pen afterward.

"I just ordered another hundred thousand pens," Chavez said.

In order to notarize petitions while maintaining social distancing, Petition Partners has set up outdoor conference rooms in the parking lots of its 12 offices where signature gatherers can turn in their petitions. They've brought in barbers and ice cream trucks to keep up employee morale.

Other ballot initiatives haven't been able to cope with the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Shortly after the Arizona Supreme Court issued its opinion on online signature collection, Arizonans for Fair Elections, a progressive campaign to overhaul the state's election and campaign finance laws, announced that it was calling it quits.

Outlaw Dirty Money, the latest iteration of a long-running effort to ban the use of anonymous "dark money" in candidate campaigns, has also suspended operations. Ballot measure campaigns to freeze the minimum wage, restrict Arizona's school voucher program and loosen laws on citizen initiatives have all fallen by the wayside as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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