AUGUSTA — Glen Witham had already turned in hundreds of signatures for two ballot initiatives when the Waterville resident seized the opportunity to earn extra money by circulating petitions for a southern Maine casino.

But Witham was surprised – and later outraged – to discover he was one of the few Mainers in the room when he went to hand in his casino signatures at a Bangor hotel.

“There were about 30 people in there waiting to get their signatures notarized and every one of them was from out of state,” Witham said. “And I thought, ‘This is nuts.'”

Maine isn’t typically a top destination during December and January, except for those interested in winter sports. But Facebook posts by a group called the National Association of Professional Petitioners and Coordinators – hinting at the pay of $1,000 to $2,000 a day – help explain why Maine suddenly became a hot spot in the underground and largely unknown industry that has cropped up around gathering petition signatures for political campaigns.

“All expenses are paid, including fully paid air travel in/out from anywhere in the US (meaning you don’t have to put up the money to book the ticket, we can do so for you),” read a Jan. 11 post on the association’s page. “Transportation from airport to hotel, fully paid for accommodation at a nice Super 8 hotel with indoor heated swimming pool and hot tub … rental car and gas and tolls.”

With just weeks to gather more than 61,000 signatures, the campaign to authorize a casino in southern Maine reportedly offered circulators up to $10 per signature. Campaigns typically offer $1 to $2 per signature when there is less deadline pressure.

Daniel Smith, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in elections and so-called “direct democracy” campaigns, called the $10-per-signature offer “outrageous” but said the pay-per-signature field is anything but new. In his research, Smith found a 1910 campaign offering 3 cents a signature.

“Many operations are fly-by-night,” Smith said. “People see this as an opportunity to make a quick buck by running a campaign.”

A COMPARISON TO LOBBYISTS

While paid signature-gathering dates back more than a century, and private firms specialized in circulating petitions have been around for decades, the industry’s presence in Maine has been more noticeable in recent months as so many campaigns scramble to get on the November ballot.

Complaints about aggressive or deceitful petition circulators, as well as allegations from some signature gatherers that they’re not being paid for their work, also highlight the darker side of an industry likely to grow as more organizations pursue major policy changes at the ballot box rather than through the legislative process.

Smith, who supports the citizen’s initiative model, said states are always working to fight potential fraud or weed out shady characters in the petition business. But Smith said citizen’s initiatives serve as “a check … on the legislative process and on elected officials.” In that respect, he added, paid signature gatherers are similar to lobbyists working the halls of power in statehouses or in Washington.

“You have paid lobbyists in Augusta and they are trying to do the same thing: they are trying to push their agenda,” said Smith, who is also president of an election research and consulting firm called ElectionSmith Inc. “There are some deceptive practices (in petition drives) that I’ve seen that are certainly illegal, … but is that any different than what goes on with lobbyists peddling information that may be untrue or may be skewed?”

Organizations have spent well over $1 million gathering signatures to place at least five citizen’s initiatives – and potentially as many as seven – on the ballot this November.

The five that appear most likely to qualify for the ballot are: increasing Maine’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020, instituting ranked choice voting, legalizing marijuana for recreational use, requiring background checks on private gun sales, and increasing funding for education. A campaign to authorize a casino in York County was also rushing this month to gather the 61,123 signatures from registered voters needed to qualify.

The Maine Republican Party has been gathering signatures for November on a proposal to reduce the income tax rate and change welfare laws, but party officials announced Friday that they would extend their campaign and aim for the 2017 ballot.

Most, if not all, of the citizen’s initiatives involve perennial issues that have gone nowhere in the Maine State House. And Maine won’t be the only state where a crowd of referendum campaigns will compete for voter attention with presidential, congressional and legislative candidates.

In California, where contentious ballot initiatives or “propositions” have become the norm, 19 separate campaigns were gathering signatures to place issues on the ballot this year, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. It’s a similar story in Colorado and Oregon, where campaigns are angling to put nine and 11 issues on those states’ respective ballots this year.

The pressure to collect tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of signatures in a matter of months has spawned an entire for-profit field dubbed by one observer in the 1980s as “the initiative industrial complex.”

SOME ARE STILL WAITING TO BE PAID

John Merchant of Florida is among those who have traveled around the country to help collect signatures.

“I’ve been doing this on and off for about 10 years,” Merchant said. “I do it when it’s worth it. I’m a salesman.”

Merchant arrived in Maine in early January to help with the casino referendum and left after a little more than two weeks of work. A veteran of campaigns in Florida, California and other states, Merchant said he gathered hundreds of signatures but is now accusing the firm Olympic Consulting, run by Lewiston resident Stavros Mendros, and other casino campaign officials of owing him nearly $4,000.

Merchant, whose repeated efforts to get paid before leaving Maine resulted in Augusta police issuing him a harassment and trespass warning, was highly critical of what he saw while collecting signatures.

“He was paying people for a lot of crappy signatures,” Merchant said of Mendros’ firm. “He had a lot of people who didn’t have integrity.”

Mendros did not respond to a request for comment.

Merchant isn’t the only signature gatherer claiming he is owed money. Facebook pages that serve as forums for signature gatherers contained numerous posts last week of people claiming they had yet to be paid by the casino campaign in Maine.

Witham, the Waterville resident, said he is owed about $2,000 from the casino campaign. Before that, Witham had gathered signatures for the gun background checks and education campaigns, both of which were utilizing the Washington, D.C.-based firm FieldWorks LLC to coordinate the petition drives.

He described the FieldWorks campaign as better-organized and more professional, while on the casino campaign he said he saw people who were supposed to be witnessing signatures for out-of-state circulators out gathering their own signatures.

“I am outraged as to why and how out-of-state people can come to this state, where they have no interest, and petition for such a highly contested ballot petition,” Witham said.

There are several predominant models for gathering signatures.

The first and most labor-intensive involves a large group of unpaid volunteers typically overseen by paid coordinators or field workers. The second is the pay-per-signature model in which campaigns either hire petition circulators directly or contract out with a firm that hires paid signature gatherers, whether from within the local population or from among “professional” gatherers around the country.

In the third model, contract firms such as FieldWorks LLC – a national organization that typically works on progressive or Democratic issues – have paid coordinators overseeing a contingent of circulators who are paid by the hour, not by the signature. Firms such as FieldWorks also often assign signature gatherers to specific locations.

“Paying signature gatherers by the hour, rather than per signature, treats people fairly and pays them a fair wage for their time worked, which everyone deserves,” Chris Gallaway, a partner at FieldWorks LLC, said in a statement. “It also discourages fraud that is rampant in pay-per-signature operations. We also believe that hiring local staff means that circulators are more likely to be invested and care about the issues we work on, as well as supporting the local economy.”

‘WE GO DIRECTLY TO THE VOTERS’

Arenza Thigpen Jr., an Alaska resident who founded the trade group the International League of Signature Gatherers, estimated that at least 80 percent of petition circulators are “very genuine and very hard-working people who believe in the petition process.” The league operates a hotline for those in the industry as well as one of the Facebook pages that serve as a forum for members.

Thigpen defended Mendros, whom he has known for years, and described him as “the best guy for gathering signatures in all of New England.” The fact that some people may have not been paid, Thigpen said, likely reflects the fact that the campaign is going through the time-consuming process of vetting signatures to identify those that are invalid or fraudulent.

Like Smith, the University of Florida professor, Thigpen sees petition campaigns and signature gatherers as “direct democracy lobbyists” who are getting paid to travel around the nation to do the same thing as professional lobbyists. But in order to ensure the public’s trust in the integrity of the system, Thigpen said, the industry must police itself.

“We are doing the job of weeding out the bad petition signature gatherers,” he said. “But by definition, we are the same thing as other lobbyists, but we go directly to the voters.”

By Friday, local town clerks across Maine were expected to have completed their review of the tens of thousands of petition signatures filed by the various campaigns by Jan. 21. Those campaigns still hoping to place their issue on the November ballot have until close of day on Monday to file their petition signatures with the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, which will conduct its own review.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said his office has received complaints about the signature-gathering process and will be on the lookout for any discrepancies.

“But until we get all of the petitions submitted to us, we can’t examine them for any of the things that people are saying,” Dunlap said.

As for the other issue of petition circulators claiming they are owed money, Dunlap said “that’s not our purview and not our problem” because the state does not regulate how signature gatherers are paid.

“There has been plenty of discussion in the Legislature about whether paying for signatures should even be allowed, but the courts have consistently upheld it,” Dunlap said. “So really that is an employer-employee issue.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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