photo: A California voter casts his ballot in 2016.
A California voter casts a ballot in 2016. With coronavirus lockdowns hampering signature-gathering efforts, the state's 2020 ballot will be light on voter referendums. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Campaign events are canceled, canvassers are homebound, and ballot initiatives are stalled as coronavirus lockdowns limit voter-led democratic efforts.

Right now, Melissa Lavasani expected to be going door-to-door collecting signatures for Decriminalize Nature D.C., the campaign to stop arrests for the possession or growing of psychedelic plants that she launched in the District last December. She needs to gather at least 35,000 signatures by July 6 to get the measure onto D.C.’s ballot for the November election.

But with the city under a stay-at-home order, her campaign’s on hold. Lavasani fears that without the ability to do field work, Decriminalize Nature’s 2020 campaign will fail to qualify — a looming worry shared by proponents of ballot measures, initiatives, and referendums in states and cities across the country.

Nationwide, coronavirus-related social-distancing measures are playing havoc with the high-contact democratic process. Voter engagement efforts in the lead-up to the U.S.’s November presidential election have been hamstrung, and political campaigns have pivoted from door-knocking to mailers, and from rallies to virtual town halls. To maximize voter engagement where turn-out may be stifled, some jurisdictions are expanding early voting and absentee access for the upcoming general election, or rescheduling elections altogether. Other states are taking the opposite approach: After Wisconsin Republicans refused to postpone the state’s primary, hundreds of voters across the state risked coronavirus infection to stand in very long lines; in Milwaukee, where only five voting sites opened, in-person turnout was far below normal.

Citizen-led ballot campaigns are under some unique strains. Such measures, initiatives, and referendums offer voters a unique opportunity to engage in direct democracy, allowing individuals and entities to sponsor legislation that politicians may not take up themselves — for better or for worse. The mechanisms that qualify these measures for the ballot vary from state to state, but they typically rely on collecting thousands of constituent signatures at large local events or via door-to-door canvassing. Campaigners don’t have the power to change filing deadlines or go digital themselves. While some cities and states are rewriting policies to help ballot initiatives survive, other officials have been more resistant to change.

“Certainly the effect is clear: There will be fewer measures on the 2020 ballot than there would have been otherwise,” said Josh Altic, a project director for Ballotpedia who tracks ballot measures.

Arizona initiatives to raise the minimum wage for health care workers and increase campaign finance transparency have suspended signature-gathering. North Dakota’s marijuana legalization campaign is delaying its efforts until the next primary. According to the Napa Valley Register, only five of the dozens of propositions that would have found their way onto the infamously initiative-heavy California ballot have a guaranteed spot. San Francisco’s sales tax to fund public transit has been officially punted, and Seattle’s attempt to resurrect a tax on businesses to fund Green New Deal-style affordable housing development is scrambling to adjust its operations.

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, says that it’s too early to know which measures will fail and which flourish. But if they never appear in front of voters, there may be broad political consequences. “We’ve seen over the last several years how important direct democracy is to take on these systemic issues that unfortunately our representatives have not moved through state legislatures or local city councils,” she said. “Whether these issues qualify in November or not … voter and community engagement around these issues remains critical.”

Though signature deadlines vary by jurisdiction, spring is crunch time for measures seeking a spot on the November ballot. Nearly two-thirds of the 25 states (plus D.C.) that allow initiatives and referendums on the ballot have due dates between April 1 and Aug. 16, Altic says.

Campaigns that have already begun their signature process are hopeful that they’ll find another window to meet their targets. California’s high-profile revision of its split-roll tax on commercial and industrial properties, for example, filed a petition with 1.7 million signatures, which means its odds of qualifying are strong. Uber, Lyft and other gig companies’ $110 million attempt to roll back California’s independent contractor reclassification law has 1 million signatures and will likely qualify, too — but it may face more scrutiny, as drivers without health insurance form the front-lines of the coronavirus response.

Ballot campaigns that haven’t made as much progress — or those like Lavasani’s, which haven’t even started petitioning — might have to wait until 2022.

Even campaigns that have a head start have no guarantees: Typically, Altic says, ballot campaigns aim to exceed the signature threshold by at least 25 percent, because they need to get through a strict verification process meant to cut down on fraud. “Everyone needs a cushion,” he said.

Advocates have asked cities and states to extend qualification deadlines, lower the threshold of signatures needed, or allow them to collect mail-in or digital signatures. They’ve made limited progress: Oklahoma’s secretary of state paused the 90-day window campaigns have to collect signatures until the state’s lockdown ends; in San Diego, where the city council approves what questions appear on the ballot, the submission deadline has been pushed back to May 1.

But pushing the process to evolve is harder than you’d think. In most states, ballot measure regulations are baked into constitutions, meaning legislative or legal action is required to change them. And though there’s been slow-simmering momentum behind building digital voting infrastructure, “there’s no state where there’s an active or truly active electronic signature submission process for initiatives,” said Altic.

Before the social distancing requirements were codified in Idaho, Luke Mayville said his campaign team, Reclaim Idaho, was employing different strategies for “sanitary, clean signature-gathering”: They wouldn’t shake hands or have close conversations with people; they brought along dozens of pens for signers to use and instituted a “keep the pen” policy. They even considered making a drive-through, to educate voters about their initiative to increase funding for schools through new corporate and personal income taxes.

“We were trying to adapt with the guidelines as they grew more and more stringent,” he said. “But once the six-foot rule settled in, it just became impractical. It also became clear at that point that any continuation of a signature drive would put volunteers and the wider public at risk.”

The campaign has about 30,000 out of the 55,000 signatures needed, but with the drive suspended, Reclaim Idaho has few other options to meet its April 30 deadline. Like most states, Idaho has strict rules about what can qualify as a valid signature: It needs to be witnessed by a circulator, and then notarized. The group asked state legislators to allow them to switch to online petitioning, but they haven’t complied.

Decriminalize Nature D.C. was able to delay their petition hearing, a strategy Lavasani hopes will give them more time after social-distancing rules loosen to get back in the field. But the submission deadline to qualify for November’s ballot hasn’t changed, so she’s lobbying the government to adopt electronic signature-collecting as soon as possible. “Our perspective is we can’t just abandon a democratic process just because of a pandemic,” she said. “We have to learn from this experience and adjust ourselves … we need systems in place to adapt to these things.”

She also believes strongly that the legislation she’s pushing for will have a role to play in the weeks ahead. After the birth of her second child, she turned to mushrooms and ayahuasca, which are listed as Schedule 1 drugs in the District, to treat her debilitating post-partum depression. “We need to change some laws so people feel safe doing these things,” she says. “I think this mass trauma we’re experiencing is going to come to a head very quickly once this mass pandemic passes us.”

In Arizona, state legislators have adapted to coronavirus concerns by using the state’s E-Qual voting system to collect online signatures for their political campaigns. As AZCentral reports, representatives from four ballot campaigns are asking the state to expand that capability to include ballot petitions, arguing in court that denying them the same opportunity is unconstitutional.

Registered voters in Oregon have among the greatest flexibility to sign petition signatures without coming into contact with a circulator, Altic says, by downloading a petition sheet online, signing it on paper, and mailing it back in through the postal service.

Other jurisdictions where laws governing who must act as witness are more lenient can follow Oregon’s lead. Utah’s governor issued an executive order that lets campaigners use fax and email to get their petitions to the public. The team in Seattle pushing for a tax on business to fund housing — nicknamed the “Amazon Tax” — will also start mailing petitions to constituents, and instruct them to send it back signed. They’re also gathering names for a petition asking Governor Jay Inslee and the state’s secretary of state, Kim Wyman, to allow online signature collection. But they’re not waiting for a response to start soliciting online signatures, which they hope will eventually count towards the upwards of 22,000 signatures they’ll need by early August.  

“We want it to be on the ballot this November,” said Eva Metz, a member of Seattle’s socialist alternative party and a leader of the campaign. “Working-class voters are more likely to vote in a presidential election, and in Seattle and Washington state there are mail-in ballots, so the actual election itself will still be able to go on. … I think the state should provide leadership around how to do this safely.”

In a statement from Wyman’s office, communications director Kylee Zabel said that state law doesn’t currently allow electronic signature collection, only handwritten signatures. “During our review process, we must ensure every signature on a petition sheet is authentic and intended for that particular measure,” she wrote. “The only way to verify these two requirements are met and maintain the security surrounding the initiative and referendum process is to review the original signature.”

Such Covid-19-related voting struggles may provide more momentum to e-signature advocates, Altic says, but he predicts it will be years before lasting change, partly because of security concerns. The risks of online voting were laid bare by technical troubles with a vote-reporting app during the Iowa caucuses. Though blockchain-verified voting was piloted at a small scale in West Virginia, critics say it’s vulnerable to attacks. Streamlining the referendum qualification process too efficiently could have damaging consequences.

“The very wide-held perspective will be: Look, we have this right in certain states but we have to protect the integrity of the process,” Altic said. “We need to protect against fraud, we need to protect against frivolous initiatives, and badly written initiatives. And if that means maintaining these restrictions on access to do that, that shouldn’t be compromised just because of an outbreak.”

Lawmakers should be more prepared to honor democratic functions under crisis conditions, Figueredo argues. “This for me signals how critically important it is to invest in our electoral process,” she said. “So we aren’t scrambling in moments of crisis to question whether certain issues are on the ballot, or if people will be able to vote at all.”

Mayville stresses that the digital measures Reclaim Idaho is pushing for would be temporary, until the emergency passes. “Generally, there’s a consensus in Idaho that it ought to be hard to put something on the ballot,” he said. “The debate is over how hard should it be.”

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