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Ballot initiatives navigate uncharted paths to 2020 election

Groups whose measures are still standing are resorting to alternative means to get their petitions before voters.
Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America
In Missouri, the campaign to legalize adult-use cannabis was suspended after it became clear that the in-person canvassing was impossible.Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

A month ago, the anti-gerrymandering group Arkansas Voters First wasn't planning to include a virtual "Drinks and Dialogue" Zoom meeting in its campaign to get an initiative on the November ballot. But now, it's about all it can do.

"It was really successful," a group spokesman, George Shelton, said. "This is a very popular issue in Arkansas, and there's a lot of people who want to sign the petition but can't because of the circumstances."

The inability to reach people in person is just one of the many issues the organization faces as it rushes to meet a July 3 deadline to get its measure on the November. The state's targeted social distancing measures to curb the coronavirus outbreak have banned gatherings of more than 10 people and require those outside to stay 6 feet away from one another, making it impossible for the group to gather the bulk of the required 89,000 signatures through traditional canvassing methods.

With higher voter turnout and increased political engagement, presidential election years are typically prime time for ballot initiatives. But this year, advocacy groups across the country are trying to defy the odds and keep their ballot measures alive amid stay-at-home orders and social-distancing measures that have ground their initiatives to a halt.

Already, at least 21 groups have suspended their signature-collecting campaigns on issues ranging from criminal justice reform to tax prohibitions, and from minimum wage increases to gun control, according to the politics website Ballotpedia, which tracks the measures. A marijuana legalization group in Missouri, for example, said it ended its petition effort after it became clear that in-person canvassing was impossible.

"Nobody was planning for a worldwide pandemic to change the course of this entire year," said John Payne, the campaign manager of Missourians for a New Approach. "We're just a victim of circumstance."

But some groups are pressing forward, including campaigns to ban late-term abortions, end LGBTQ discrimination and decriminalize psychedelic drugs. Voter engagement efforts, which typically involve door-knocking and soliciting outside of stores, have shifted to Twitter and Facebook, encouraging people to stay informed by signing up for email updates until the in-person efforts can continue. Some groups are also trying untested methods like online signature gathering, while still others are filing lawsuits challenging in-person signature requirements.

Josh Altic, a project director at Ballotpedia, said the situation has been further complicated by the fact that many states haven't indicated whether they would change guidelines on how to proceed with ballot initiatives amid the pandemic.

"Some of these campaigns have been trying to get on the ballot for six years," Altic said. "Waiting another two years is not pleasant for anyone, so there's a lot of pressure from campaigns to change or relax the rules."

Arkansas Voters First, which has spent upward of $200,000 on their campaign to create an independent commission that would redraw state and congressional districts, is suing the state to change the rules on in-person signature collection; the state currently requires all signatures to be notarized in person by the petitioners.

The group claims the combination of restrictions on person-to-person contact because of COVID-19 and the large number of signatures required to meet the qualifying threshold have resulted "in an impossibly severe burden that effectively freezes access to the November ballot."

In the meantime, the campaign is also holding an online drive for pledges from residents to sign the petition once social-distancing measures are loosened, reaching out to voters by email and through Facebook and Twitter.

"The current online efforts are going well, so we feel like once we're able to make person-to-person connections, we'll be able to get the signatures we need," Shelton said.

The challenges are especially pressing for the group because 2020 is a census year. If their ballot measure doesn't succeed, the Republican-dominated state Legislature — whose own map is considered by advocates to be one of the most gerrymandered in the country — will continue to control the drawing of congressional districts based on that new census data, which the group says isn't a fair or transparent process.

Christian Grose, the academic director of the University of Southern California's Schwarzenegger Institute, said that without independent commissions, legislatures "draw lines in ways that would help them; they are going to be more focused on protecting their own seats, or their own party, or both."

Other groups are seeking to push the deadlines back for submitting their petitions. Due Date Too Late, a Colorado group seeking to ban late-term abortions, was granted a delay in their two-week "cure" period — the extra time the state granted them to recirculate their petition to collect the 15,000 signatures it needs to get their measure on the ballot — by a state court in Denver because of the state's emergency stay-at-home order. In preparation for the canvassing blitz to come, the group is focused on recruiting volunteers and is even paying some canvassers.

Lauren Castillo, a spokesperson for the group, says if it can't get going with collecting signatures by the end of May, it won't have time to meet the deadline and will have to delay the effort until 2022.

"We've been educating the community about this issue since late 2019, and I think there's a momentum that's on our side that can be lost if we have to delay," she said.

In Michigan, a group spearheading an anti-LGBTQ discrimination initiative, Fair and Equal Michigan, has moved straight to collecting signatures online. The group claims its petition should be viable because the state's laws are vague on the use of electronic signatures for ballot measures.

"At the end of the day, LGBTQ people have been facing discrimination in Michigan for decades, and we are done waiting," Trevor Thomas, the group's co-chair, said. "We are taking a stand, and we're excited to make our case to the people, and we are confident in our odds."

Altic, however, says the group's effort might be challenged. While the law is somewhat unclear, he noted it does mention that a person circulating a petition needs to be present for signatures, which could open it up to a potential lawsuit, as has happened in Arizona.

Still other groups have resorted to mailing petitions directly to voters along with return postage. In Oregon, supporters of a ballot initiative that would establish a drug addiction treatment and recovery program using marijuana tax revenue say they are close to garnering the required 125,000 signatures and are collecting the final several thousand by mail.

"Not everyone has access to a printer or a stamp, which is why they are mailing petitions with a paid-postage return envelope to anyone who requests one," said Sarah Armstrong, a spokesperson for American Civil Liberties Union's state chapter, which backs the measure.

Decriminalize Nature DC, the group behind an initiative that would legalize the possession and growing of psychedelic mushrooms in Washington, D.C., asked the city to approve their plan to mail petitions to voters, but it has yet to hear back. The group needs 35,000 signatures for the measure to qualify for the November ballot.

"We cannot abandon the democratic process because of a pandemic," Melissa Lavasani, a spokesperson for the group, said. "Getting people to open their mail is going to be a challenge, but that's the only option we have right now."