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Circulators, Start Now: Coronavirus Makes Petitions Harder

SD Dems exec Pam Cole says coronavirus killed Dems’ chances of getting a U.S. House candidate on the 2020 ballot:

But, Cole said, the biggest hurdle was the COVID-19 pandemic.

People stopped going to public places where they could be contacted and asked to sign. Efforts to hold drive-up petition drives were not terribly successful and door-to-door campaigning also failed.

“It was really difficult for her to deal with that,” Cole said [Tom Lawrence, “Democrats Fail to Qualify Candidate for U.S. House Race,” Aberdeen American News, 2020.06.01].

If a candidate can’t get 1,615 signatures in three months (only the last half of the last one of which involved the coronavirus shutdown), how do any opponents of the status quo in South Dakota think they can get 16,961 signatures on an initiative petition in twelve months?

Sponsors of initiatives for the 2022 ballot can start circulating petitions November 8, 2020. Dr. Fauci says we won’t have a vaccine for covid-19 until the beginning of 2021, if we’re lucky. November and December are rotten months for petitioning already, but I can guarantee that, absent a vaccine, sensible folks will not open their doors for canvassing petitioners. They will not stop to chat with a clipboarded stranger on the street. And many of the regular volunteers who have carried petitions in the past out of love for their neighbors will, out of that same love of community, decline to expose friends and strangers alike to unwitting contagion.

I’m usually all about petitions. But in March, when coronavirus got real, I declined to carry or sign any petition. I would not have considered sending any neighbor to any public place or private home to collect a signature. I don’t know how I’ll feel come dark November (none of us do, because none of us know what the epidemiological conditions will be), but as we burst into hot, sunny June, if someone brought a petition to my door, I’d open a window or slip out the back to the sideyard and say, from at least ten feet away, “Beat it.” I wouldn’t even consider sponsoring a petition drive right now and dispatching hundreds of volunteers to run around the state acting as public health nuisances.

Even if a vaccine hits the market in 2021, we’ll have to overcome the inertia of an entire year of coronavirus-avoidance psychology to get back to anything like the busy sidewalks and fair booths where sponsors could expect good circulators to draw convenient crowds to sign their petitions. It’s hard enough in normal times to stand on a street corner and get people who don’t know you to stop what they are doing for an unexpected conversation and political transaction; the number of passersby who will so politely pause will be cut in half by lingering concerns about coronavirus.

If only half of the usual crowd will stop to even consider signing a petition, petition sponsors will need to spend twice as much time (twice the money, on twice the circulators) circulating their petitions. South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws spent $1.13 million (a quarter million of that in “donated” signature gathering services) to collect enough signatures in two months to put two marijuana initiatives on the 2020 ballot. Coronavirus will make the next comparable ballot measure push cost twice that. Anyone planning a grassroots campaign without an infusion of out-of-state cash (97.2% of SDBML’s cash and all of its donated goods and services came from D.C.) will need to plan to have circulators collecting signatures every day of the 365-day circulation window, starting this November 8. Petitioners cannot wait for the sunny days of next summer to carry petitions, because those sunny days may never come. The county and state fairs may not come… and even if they do, the people may not.

If you have an idea for an initiative, write it up and send it to the Legislative Research Council now. Get the fifteen-day review, then revise and send your final draft for the Attorney General’s 60-day review. Then spend the couple months left before November 8 printing petitions and circulator handouts (ah, yes, more handheld papers of death), ordering disinfectant and 50,000 cheap pens, recruiting circulators, and staging all of your materials so your grassroots circulators (a thousand of them, at least) can all start collecting signatures from their family and friends on November 8. Yes, it’s absurdly early to be talking to people about a measure they won’t get to vote on until 2022 when they still won’t have gotten the taste of this year’s election out of their mouths, but initiative sponsors need to plan for a 365-day circulation campaign to be sure they’ll have enough safe days to collect the usual number of signatures.

With or without a vaccine, coronavirus requires new ways of circulating petitions. Circulators can’t plan to approach hundreds of strangers a day. Sponsors will need to recruit far more volunteers who can tap far more small personal circles of trusted friends who will take time to gather, cautiously, in small groups, to sign two or three at a time in well-ventilated rooms while witnessed from a safe social distance. Even if we’ve had our shots, voters will expect that sort of respectful and thus painstakingly slow circulation process.


  1. leslie 2020-06-02 07:16

    Thx for this reporting Cory. I have been saddened but uniformed that we are not in this race. It says to me that the county Democratic parties must be on top of these issues much earlier. Leadership, leadership, leadership….

  2. Poliglut 2020-06-03 13:34

    Thanks. Disheartening for any who would push back against an idiotic Legislature.

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