‘No One Has Ever Seen This’: Coronavirus Rattles California Ballot Campaigns

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By Jeremy B. White, POLITICO

March 18, 2020


SAN FRANCISCO — As Californians raided hand sanitizer and wipes to battle the spread of the coronavirus last week, Fred Kimball pivoted to make a different kind of bulk purchase: 300,000 pens.

November’s election may feel like an eternity from now as new developments about the disease rattle everyday life. But as California clamps down on public activities and large gatherings, groups trying to qualify and pass statewide ballot initiatives on an array of critical issues are scrambling with how to adapt the personal-contact-intensive process of collecting and verifying signatures in a world now resigned to social distancing.

“So everyone who signs a petition uses their own pen,” explained Kimball, president of the ballot initiative signature-gathering firm Kimball Petition Management. This way, “they’re not touching anything.”

As Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials urge Californians to stay in or close to home for weeks — and in some cases, to shelter in place — petition gatherers find themselves on increasingly deserted streets. Like Kimball’s fresh-pen giveaway, campaigns are getting creative. But even those with enough signatures are nervous for their own safety because mandatory validation processes entail campaign staff and county officials physically sifting through papers.

“We’re all flying by the seat of our pants,” Kimball said. “No one has ever seen this.”

California is hardly alone with ballot measures on the line. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 more states have a citizen initiative process. Those states include Washington, Massachusetts and Florida, which along with California have already been among the hardest-hit by coronavirus diagnoses.

Several campaigns in California say they’ve already obtained enough signatures ahead of the June 25 deadline to put their measures on the November ballot. But those who haven’t hit the necessary threshold yet now find themselves in some delicate decisions about how to deploy signature-gatherers and how long they need to keep paying people to work the streets.

“It’s sort of a minute by minute calculation from us,” said Robin Swanson, who’s working for a campaign to pass stricter data privacy laws. “Which counties are on lockdown? Where do we move our resources?”

Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court, whose organization supports a perennial effort to raise medical malpractice payouts, predicted that “initiatives that got a late start” face may be at a loss.

“It’s going to be harder to get signatures and it’s going to be harder to find people to validate the signatures,” Court said. “Petitions that started in January are in real jeopardy.”

For signature collectors, supermarkets present a risky opportunity: Grocery stores are not going to shut down or run out of food — a point that elected officials have hammered into rattled constituents — but anxious Californians have still flooded in to stock up. Weaving through one of the few points of high foot traffic could be a gold mine for some signature-gatherers. Yet, campaign officials said nervous store managers are pushing petition staff away from store entrances.

“I know the supermarkets are becoming extra sensitive,” said Kurt Oneto, a partner who specializes in statewide ballot measures at Nielsen Merksamer.

The potential hazards don’t halt once a campaign has enough signatures (including a buffer to compensate for some inevitably being declared invalid). Campaigns must verify a sample of signatures, and then county elections officials must do the same — a process that necessitates thumbing through forms other people have handled.

“Signatures are scarce, particularly in northern California,” Court said, “and people don’t want to validate the petitions that other people have touched.”

While health authorities have said surfaces like packages and newspapers are unlikely to carry the virus, Kimball said dozens of validators have already quit rather than sort through petitions that may be contaminated. And while others are eager for a steady paycheck, he worries that a single positive test could derail the process.

“I have people coming into work. People want to work,” Kimball said. “My biggest fear is we get shut down.”

A spokesperson for the California Secretary of State’s office said in an email that counties are encouraged to follow guidelines that include washing hands and sanitizing workspaces. He pointed to an advisory from San Bernardino County elections officials saying the office would continue its work, but with some guardrails: only one observer per campaign at a time, and workers showing symptoms will be sent home. 

“Every county, is of course, going to be different operationally and have different procedures in place based upon their staffing levels,” spokesperson Sam Mahood said. “If any county has concerns about safely completing their signature verification process, we are ready to work with them to identify solutions.”

San Diego County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu said his office is focused for now on certifying the March primary, which has entailed sending some workers home and spreading others out to keep a safe distance.

When they shift to examining ballot initiative signatures, Vu said the office would likely move more people out of existing “tight quarters” to “other spaces not normally used for verifying of petitions.” But there are limits to what elections officials can control.

“We have to touch every single one of these” signature sheets officials are validating,” Vu said, and it’s impossible to fully prevent the “uncontrollable event” of a worker testing positive. “If we have one instance of it, then what?”

Political operative are already examining whether the Legislature could change other rules governing dates and sample sizes to accommodate unprecedented fluidity.

“Obviously a whole bunch of folks are looking at this — myself included — and what’s at stake and what options are available that could require legislative action,” Oneto, the ballot measure specialist, said.

At the same time, campaigns have until June to pull initiatives off the ballot. That effectively imposes a deadline for the Legislature to make deals that could avert ballot fights, as with a tech industry initiative to exempt firms like Uber from a new worker classification law. But the Legislature adjourned early this week, adding another layer of uncertainty to their policymaking timeline.

For now, petition groups are trying to navigate a landscape changing by the hour.

Consumer Watchdog
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