Consultants are under pressure to innovate as signature gathering continues to be hampered by the pandemic and online efforts are threatened by legal challenges.
In some cases, initiative efforts have pulled back, deciding to wait until 2022 or possibly even later. Others like marijuana and medical marijuana legalizations efforts in Montana and Nebraska respectively are pressing forward, arming their signature gatherers with Clorox wipes, gloves and masks while announcing signing locations on Facebook.
In the past, a successful signature-gathering effort for a campaign or initiative mixed volunteers with paid canvassers and fanned them out at grocery stores, concerts, and other large-scale public gatherings around the state or district.
That strategy is unavailable during COVID. Still, the signature requirement for candidates and initiatives, which can run into the hundreds of thousands, remains in place with summer deadlines looming.
That’s part of what’s driving consultants to innovate. Using direct mail to send a signature form with return postage, peer-to-peer pushes for potential supporters to take action and Facebook ads that urge voters to “Commit to Sign” a petition during COVID, like this one “to bring background checks for gun safety to Ohio,” are just some new strategies being deployed this cycle.
“This is the challenge of our era for voter-contact-slash-petition-gathering firms — how do we collect them when your traditional model has clearly been uprooted?,” said Rick Ridder, co-founder of RBI Strategies and Research.
“For many of these signature collectors, you can’t got to a concert and stand outside and pick up 3,000 names,” Ridder said. “They’re really having to change their business model.”
Jimmy Camp, an Orange County-based practitioner who has consulted on signature gathering efforts, said the business model could shift to digital.
“We may be looking at a future of online signature gathering, but there's no infrastructure,” he said.
In cases where governors have moved to allow that infrastructure to develop this cycle, legal challenges have followed.
Take Colorado where Gov. Jared Polis (D) last month issued an executive order allowing signatures for ballot initiatives to be gathered by email and mail. That order is being challenged in court, which could jeopardize all the efforts groups have made to gather online signatures.
Still, initiatives shouldn’t try to adapt to what-if scenarios before they happen, warned Amanda Bloom Malo of BASK Digital. “You have to plan as the situation looks like today.”
Meanwhile, Camp and other consultants envision court challenges to signature requirements — particularly given that “sigs in lieu,” or signatures-in-lieu of a filing fee, could be considered a type of barrier to free speech for candidates and groups who don’t have the time or ability to gather them.
In fact, Reclaim Idaho is suing the state’s Republican governor, Brad Little, asking the court to “modify in-person signature-gathering requirements” for its Invest in Idaho education funding initiative that’s aiming for placement on the November ballot.
In California, Camp said the “legislature is going to have to come up with something. They're going to have to do something to digitize the process.”
Local elections officials in southern California told C&E there had so far been no move by Sacramento to amend the state’s signature requirements or deadlines.
Speaking about new local candidates in California's municipal or school board elections, Camp said: “I don't know how they're going to get on the ballot at this point.”
Camp and others are also envisioning signature gathering being difficult even in a post-COVID environment — especially in areas that were hard hit by the virus.
“Culturally, things are going to change in how we approach people and how we talk to people," he said, noting that the days of someone staying in front of a supermarket and simply handing a pen to a potential supporter are over.
In fact, in the past groups and candidates could potentially "throw bodies" at the problem of needing a large number of signatures in a short period of time. Now, he said, "it'll just mean more people going to be turning more people down."
If that’s the case, some firms say they have a remedy to ease the friction between signature gathers and supporters. Democratic firm Trilogy Interactive is currently working with ballot measure campaigns in Michigan and Massachusetts building “a first-of-its-kind user flow for collecting legally valid signatures online.”
Voterfied, a civic tech firm based in Rancho Sante Fe, Calif., was recently contracted by the Montgomery County GOP in Maryland to help it create an online portal to gather electronic signatures for a petition drive related to county district sizes. In May, it went live after the state of Maryland deemed it legal.
“Why is it the government is the last to adopt modern technologies?,” asked Michael Allman, Voterfied’s founder. “Legislators generally do not like direct democracy in any form. They put up as many barriers as they can. but people like it.
“It sure seems archaic to make you actually write your name when you can click a box on your phone, with greater security. Given where we are with the virus, we should allow for an alternative."
Allman said that any move to digital represents a business opportunity for his company, but could create a heavy compliance burden after the fact in a close vote. “It's going to open up a big audit issue, but we're used to that,” he said.
The opportunity could also have a limited window. Many practitioners told C&E that they believe legislators could roll back any electronic signature provisions after the pandemic subsides.
That will be difficult for practitioners and voters alike, said Ridder, who worked on some of the early successful marijuana legalization initiatives.
“It’s going to be very hard to go back to old ways,” he said.