The multiple campaigns trying to place referendum questions on the November ballot were on track to spend well over $1 million collecting petition signatures from Maine voters.

Up to six questions may appear on the November ballot on everything from legalizing marijuana to increasing the minimum wage and expanding background checks on gun purchases. Further complicating matters, the campaigns will be competing for voter attention – and advertising time – with candidates for president, Congress and state legislative districts.

Many of the referendum campaigns have paid petition circulators to gather the 61,123 signatures from Maine voters needed to qualify for the ballot. And financial disclosure reports show it’s been a windfall for signature gatherers and the firms – both in Maine and from around the country – that help coordinate campaigns.

Between July 1 and Dec. 31, seven organizations working on six ballot initiatives had spent more than $950,000 on fieldwork to collect petition signatures. That figure does not include all related expenses – including some costly consultants – or the large sums that some of those organizations spent during the first three weeks of January to collect all of the needed signatures by Friday.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said the scale of the effort was unprecedented in Maine but added that the “paid signature gathering phenomenon is here to stay.”

“Paid signature gathering has been around for quite a while,” Dunlap said. “The Legislature has looked at a couple of ways to try and regulate it, but it is pretty much accepted that this is a form of protected speech.”

GUN CONTROL EFFORT LEADS PACK

Ballot initiative campaigns often use a combination of volunteers and paid petition circulators as well as paid staffers to coordinate the fieldwork. While many campaigns pay just $1 to $2 a signature, organizations working on a tighter time frame or struggling to collect the required 61,000-plus signatures sometimes pay significantly more. The proponents of a York County casino, for instance, did not take out paperwork to begin their campaign until Dec. 8 and reportedly offered petition circulators up to $10 per signature.

Leading the pack in terms of total payout as of Dec. 31 was Maine Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, a group that wants to require background checks on private gun sales.

The organization, which submitted more than 85,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office last week, had paid the Washington, D.C.-based campaign consulting firm FieldWorks LLC more than $570,000 between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31. During the same period, Maine Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense received $750,000 from Everytown for Gun Safety, the national gun control group founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The Maine Moms group used both volunteer and paid signature gatherers.

“Maine Moms Demand Action was delighted to have more than 200 Mainers volunteer their time to gather signatures, which allowed us to collect signatures from all 503 cities and towns across the state,” Beth Allen, field director for the campaign, said in a statement. “We saw up close how committed Mainers are to bringing criminal background checks for all gun sales to our state. There are always start-up costs associated with a ballot measure campaign.”

The last-minute campaign to place a York County casino question on the ballot was also racking up large fieldwork bills in recent weeks.

ONLY ONE INITIATIVE ALREADY ON BALLOT

The organization Horseracing Jobs Fairness paid two firms – Lewiston-based Olympic Consulting Group and Silver Bullet Group from Wyoming – well over $100,000 just for fieldworkers as of Dec. 31. The final amount is expected to be much larger because paid signature gatherers – lured by the promise of up to $10 per signature – were canvassing the state in January in hopes of meeting a Friday deadline to submit signatures to local town clerks for verification.

The Maine People’s Alliance – an organization that has emerged as the leading advocate for liberal or progressive causes – paid nearly $120,000 for “phone and field canvasses” in support of its ballot initiative to increase Maine’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020. The alliance and other organizations in the coalition to increase Maine’s minimum wage submitted more than 75,000 petition signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office earlier this month.

The effort to legalize recreational use of marijuana also spent hefty sums gathering signatures.

Although they have since coalesced behind one ballot initiative, the organizations Legalize Maine and the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol spent more than $113,000 combined between July 1 and Dec. 31 gathering signatures for two separate initiatives.

The marijuana campaigns are expected to file their signatures with the secretary of state prior to the Feb. 1 deadline.

The only initiative to already qualify for the November ballot – a proposal to institute a ranked-choice or “instant runoff” election system in Maine – spent a comparatively small $16,000 on the signature-gathering process in the final half of 2015, according to its financial reports.

Meanwhile, the Maine Republican Party reported spending just shy of $22,000 through Dec. 31 on the party’s proposed initiative to reduce Maine’s income tax and institute additional welfare reforms. It was unclear last week whether the party would gather enough signatures to qualify for the November 2016 ballot, but it could aim for the 2017 ballot.

Dunlap said his office has heard from town clerks working to verify petition signatures about “a lot of sloppy work” from ballot initiative campaigns. With the glut of spending for the November 2016 ballot and concerns about the signature gatherers, Dunlap said he would expect the Legislature to take another look at ways to better police the process.

 


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