John Dale, who is circulating an initiative petition to legalize cannabis in South Dakota, is trying a novel approach to soliciting signatures, using online signups to identify willing petition signers:
Dale says he’s using his own “privacy-certified database” instead of Facebook. I’m all for that. Dale is asking people who want to sign his petition to text “reefer” to 605-309-7007. Texters will receive a link to an online form where they can enter their contact information. Dale will use that information to check voter registration. Once Dale has a big list of eligible signers, he’ll pre-print petitions with the names, addresses, and county of voter registration of each willing signer. Then he’ll make two, maybe three trips around the state, set up shop in a series of six towns, and alert those interested signers that he’s in the neighborhood and should come line up to sign.
Pre-printing signer information on petitions is legal—the only thing petition signers have to personally ink on a petition is their signature—but it raises three complications:
- The circulator swears on each petition sheet that “either the signer or I added the printed name, the residence address of the signer, the date of signing, and the county of voter registration.” If Dale pre-prints signer information on his petition sheets, only he, not any other circulator, can circulate that sheet.
- Suppose Olaf Olson walks up to Dale at his Rapid City or Brookings or Vermillion signing event and wants to sign. Olaf has texted Dale, is in the private database, is verified and pre-printed. Dale will have to riffle through his stack of petitions to find the petition sheet with Olaf’s information. To do that efficiently, he’ll have to print all voter names in alphabetical order, separate the sheets by tabs or folders or binders, pull out the specific sheet for Olaf, and then put Olaf’s sheet back in its place before turning to the next signer, who probably won’t be Ole Olson but Sven Svensen or Cliff Claven or someone else in a whole nother folder. Such organization is doable, but even if Dale and any helpers make no filing mistakes, the process of pulling out one specific pre-printed petition sheet for each signer and properly replacing it after each signature will likely take more time than if I start with a blank petition form and have fifteen people in line all sign and address the same sheet.
- Once the right sheet is in hand, Dale still has to eyeball the sheet to find Olaf’s line and make sure Olaf signs on his own line. If Olaf slips and signs on Ole’s or Oksana’s line, he throws Dale’s scheme into confusion, as he’ll have to remember to bring out a fresh, blank sheet for Ole or Oksana to sign when they arrive.
I’m all for innovation in the petition process. Perhaps Dale will surprise me and demonstrate that he can collect more signatures per hour with online pre-registration, pre-printing, and centralized events than other campaigns can with traditional street-corner circulating. But Dale’s method limits signature collection to one circulator, himself, who must engage in a signer-by-signer check-in and filing process.
Dale’s method also depends on signers making the effort to come to him, which I have found does not work. If you don’t believe me, test it out: sit at a fair booth or a street corner, put up a sign inviting signatures, and then say nothing. Wait for people to see your sign and come up to you. You’ll get a tiny fraction of the signatures you would by actively soliciting voters’ action. Dale is building in some prior buy-in with his texting and online sign-up plan, and he’s at least driving most of the way to meet voters in their town, but even asking signers to travel that last mile will result in significant drop-off.
We’ll see the results of Dale’s new petition circulation method in just a bit more than two months, when Dale walks into Secretary Barnett’s office with 30,000 signatures… or doesn’t.