Pandemic Forces Oregon Ballot Initiatives to Spend Far More than Planned

Listen to this audio report originally aired on XRAY’s The Local podcast.

A walk down any main street or visit to a grocery store in spring often means a greeting from a signature gatherer wielding a clipboard. Not this year. The pandemic has put a stop to up-close conversations and pen-passing to get signatures supporting ballot initiatives.

That’s a problem for the 50 initiatives, referenda and referrals that still technically could end up on the ballot in Oregon in November. They’ve got until July 2 to collect thousands of signatures demonstrating voter interest. To get there, some campaigns still actively pursuing the ballot will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more than originally planned to get there.

“What happens if we suddenly, mostly or entirely, are relying on distribution and return of e-petitions especially when outreach is no longer standing in front of the grocery store or to your friends or in organizational meetings?” said Rebecca Gladstone, president of the League of Women Voters of Oregon.

What’s happened is most initiatives approved by the Secretary of State to gather signatures in the hopes of getting on the ballot have simply shut down in the face of COVID-19.

“It’s going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars…but we’ve been forced into it because of the pandemic.”
– Norman Turrill, chair of the People not Politicians campaign

People not Politicians is among the few still going. The group, which includes LWV of Oregon in its coalition, will need 150,000 signatures in total to get its voter redistricting reform initiative – IP57 – on the 2020 Oregon ballot. It would not share how many signatures it has already collected.

Voters cannot simply sign a formal Oregon ballot petition online the way they would, say, a Change.org petition. Instead, initiative and referendum campaigns must convince supporters to print out their own petitions, sign them and send them back.

A Costly Race to the Finish Line

Some campaigns will send printed petitions to possible supporters. People not Politicians plans to mail printed petitions to a sampling of registered voters, something that before COVID-19, it hadn’t planned on doing at all.  The group hopes to raise additional funds to support the pricey direct mail effort, said Norman Turrill, chief petitioner and chair of its campaign committee.

“It’s going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Turrill. “It’s not a traditional method of doing signature campaigns, but we’ve been forced into it because of the pandemic.” He is also governance coordinator for LWV of Oregon.

Turrill said the group hopes social distancing will be lifted by mid-May or early June, so the campaign can get back out on the streets collecting signatures. “[Collecting 150,000 signatures] is daunting but we think it’s still doable if we can get back out on the streets eventually,” he said.

Oregon Psilocybin Therapy Initiative, IP34, is also in a mad dash to get across the finish line. The group needs to collect around fifteen thousand more signatures.

“We need to raise more money to continue to pay for mailers to reach as many Oregonians as possible to help us make the ballot.”
– Sam Chapman, Oregon Psilocybin Therapy Initiative campaign manager

The initiative would create a licensed and regulated program for therapy using psilocybin, the hallucinogenic substance in psychedelic mushrooms. The Food and Drug Administration has deemed psilocybin therapy a breakthrough for treating depression and PTSD.

Like the few truly active ballot initiative efforts still gathering signatures, the IP34 campaign is calling and texting supporters, asking that they download petitions from the campaign website, sign them and send them back to the campaign.

“Unfortunately and obviously, COVID-19 forced us to pull all our street signature gatherers off the street,” said Sam Chapman, IP34’s campaign manager.

For those who request them, the campaign will go so far as to send them petitions in pre-stamped envelopes.

“It’s significantly more expensive to mail and directly chase people down to download the petition,” said Chapman. “We would much rather be collecting signatures on the street from a cost perspective and an efficiency perspective. That’s just not an option right now.”

The IP34 campaign is raising additional funds to support the new costs of signature collecting that social distancing has brought. “We need to raise more money to continue to pay for mailers to reach as many Oregonians as possible to help us make the ballot,” Chapman said.

Earlier this month David Bronner of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, a longtime supporter of the IP34 initiative, promised to match every dollar the campaign raises up to $50,000. In an email to initiative supporters, Bronner wrote:

To qualify for the ballot, IP 34 needs $300,000 ASAP during the COVID-19 shutdown to cover the costs of social distanced petition gathering — online outreach, mail, and expanded grassroots organizing to find new signers in ways we never had to contemplate before.

IP34 should not be confused with IP44, the Oregon Drug Addiction Recovery Treatment Act. That initiative would remove criminal penalties for personal possession of small amounts of drugs including psilocybin mushrooms. It’s even closer to gathering all its required signatures; it only needs about 8,000 more.

Too Risky, Too Pricey

Still, most ballot initiatives packed it up awhile ago. Lift Every Voice Oregon was poised to have as many as three initiatives restricting firearms purchases on the ballot this year, but the faith-based coalition decided to stop its signature gathering efforts.

“Because of COVID-19 we decided early on not to attempt to get signatures because we didn’t want to put anybody at risk.”
– Mark Knutson, chair of Lift Every Voice Oregon

“Because of COVID-19 we decided early on not to attempt to get signatures because we didn’t want to put anybody at risk,”said Mark Knutson, Lift Every Voice Oregon’s campaign chair and senior pastor of Northeast Portland’s Augustana Lutheran Church.

The group made the decision despite the fact the Oregon Supreme Court in early April ruled to approve its initiatives to go forward with signature gathering after a fight from the NRA.

The multi-denominational group decided against a direct mailing effort, too, said Knutson. Not only do they not have the money, he said, they worried about spreading coronavirus through printed mail.

In the meantime, Lift Every Voice Oregon is training high school students on how to navigate campaigning during a time of social distancing.

“For our young leadership we have, [this can] be a civic education,” said Knutson. “How do you get signatures? The hands-on is such a great teacher for political engagement for the common good.”

Listen to this audio report originally aired on XRAY’s The Local podcast.

A walk down any main street or visit to a grocery store in spring often means a greeting from a signature gatherer wielding a clipboard. Not this year. The pandemic has put a stop to up-close conversations and pen-passing to get signatures supporting ballot initiatives.

That’s a problem for the 50 initiatives, referenda and referrals that still technically could end up on the ballot in Oregon in November. They’ve got until July 2 to collect thousands of signatures demonstrating voter interest. To get there, some campaigns still actively pursuing the ballot will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more than originally planned to get there.

“What happens if we suddenly, mostly or entirely, are relying on distribution and return of e-petitions especially when outreach is no longer standing in front of the grocery store or to your friends or in organizational meetings?” said Rebecca Gladstone, president of the League of Women Voters of Oregon.

What’s happened is most initiatives approved by the Secretary of State to gather signatures in the hopes of getting on the ballot have simply shut down in the face of COVID-19.

“It’s going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars…but we’ve been forced into it because of the pandemic.”
– Norman Turrill, chair of the People not Politicians campaign

People not Politicians is among the few still going. The group, which includes LWV of Oregon in its coalition, will need 150,000 signatures in total to get its voter redistricting reform initiative – IP57 – on the 2020 Oregon ballot. It would not share how many signatures it has already collected.

Voters cannot simply sign a formal Oregon ballot petition online the way they would, say, a Change.org petition. Instead, initiative and referendum campaigns must convince supporters to print out their own petitions, sign them and send them back.

A Costly Race to the Finish Line

Some campaigns will send printed petitions to possible supporters. People not Politicians plans to mail printed petitions to a sampling of registered voters, something that before COVID-19, it hadn’t planned on doing at all.  The group hopes to raise additional funds to support the pricey direct mail effort, said Norman Turrill, chief petitioner and chair of its campaign committee.

“It’s going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Turrill. “It’s not a traditional method of doing signature campaigns, but we’ve been forced into it because of the pandemic.” He is also governance coordinator for LWV of Oregon.

Turrill said the group hopes social distancing will be lifted by mid-May or early June, so the campaign can get back out on the streets collecting signatures. “[Collecting 150,000 signatures] is daunting but we think it’s still doable if we can get back out on the streets eventually,” he said.

Oregon Psilocybin Therapy Initiative, IP34, is also in a mad dash to get across the finish line. The group needs to collect around fifteen thousand more signatures.

“We need to raise more money to continue to pay for mailers to reach as many Oregonians as possible to help us make the ballot.”
– Sam Chapman, Oregon Psilocybin Therapy Initiative campaign manager

The initiative would create a licensed and regulated program for therapy using psilocybin, the hallucinogenic substance in psychedelic mushrooms. The Food and Drug Administration has deemed psilocybin therapy a breakthrough for treating depression and PTSD.

Like the few truly active ballot initiative efforts still gathering signatures, the IP34 campaign is calling and texting supporters, asking that they download petitions from the campaign website, sign them and send them back to the campaign.

“Unfortunately and obviously, COVID-19 forced us to pull all our street signature gatherers off the street,” said Sam Chapman, IP34’s campaign manager.

For those who request them, the campaign will go so far as to send them petitions in pre-stamped envelopes.

“It’s significantly more expensive to mail and directly chase people down to download the petition,” said Chapman. “We would much rather be collecting signatures on the street from a cost perspective and an efficiency perspective. That’s just not an option right now.”

The IP34 campaign is raising additional funds to support the new costs of signature collecting that social distancing has brought. “We need to raise more money to continue to pay for mailers to reach as many Oregonians as possible to help us make the ballot,” Chapman said.

Earlier this month David Bronner of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, a longtime supporter of the IP34 initiative, promised to match every dollar the campaign raises up to $50,000. In an email to initiative supporters, Bronner wrote:

To qualify for the ballot, IP 34 needs $300,000 ASAP during the COVID-19 shutdown to cover the costs of social distanced petition gathering — online outreach, mail, and expanded grassroots organizing to find new signers in ways we never had to contemplate before.

IP34 should not be confused with IP44, the Oregon Drug Addiction Recovery Treatment Act. That initiative would remove criminal penalties for personal possession of small amounts of drugs including psilocybin mushrooms. It’s even closer to gathering all its required signatures; it only needs about 8,000 more.

Too Risky, Too Pricey

Still, most ballot initiatives packed it up awhile ago. Lift Every Voice Oregon was poised to have as many as three initiatives restricting firearms purchases on the ballot this year, but the faith-based coalition decided to stop its signature gathering efforts.

“Because of COVID-19 we decided early on not to attempt to get signatures because we didn’t want to put anybody at risk.”
– Mark Knutson, chair of Lift Every Voice Oregon

“Because of COVID-19 we decided early on not to attempt to get signatures because we didn’t want to put anybody at risk,”said Mark Knutson, Lift Every Voice Oregon’s campaign chair and senior pastor of Northeast Portland’s Augustana Lutheran Church.

The group made the decision despite the fact the Oregon Supreme Court in early April ruled to approve its initiatives to go forward with signature gathering after a fight from the NRA.

The multi-denominational group decided against a direct mailing effort, too, said Knutson. Not only do they not have the money, he said, they worried about spreading coronavirus through printed mail.

In the meantime, Lift Every Voice Oregon is training high school students on how to navigate campaigning during a time of social distancing.

“For our young leadership we have, [this can] be a civic education,” said Knutson. “How do you get signatures? The hands-on is such a great teacher for political engagement for the common good.”