Activists trying to put questions on the ballot in Massachusetts face a critical deadline Wednesday. They must submit more than 80,000 voters' signatures to show support for their efforts.
It's a challenge that demands persistence — or enough money to hire professionals to harvest the signatures.
In a grocery store parking lot last Friday, LaShena Jones-Butler went shopping for names. She offered a clipboard and pen to strangers who came for milk and bread, asking them to help get a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that would restore voting rights to people incarcerated in Massachusetts.
"How do you feel about prisoners having the right to vote?" she asked a woman on her way into the Jamaica Plain supermarket. The woman nodded and signed.
"That's how it's done," said a beaming Jones-Butler.
Jones-Butler was once incarcerated, so this is a personal cause for her and some of her fellow signature gatherers. Their passion is obvious, but they need a late surge to collect enough signatures to qualify now, even though their measure wouldn't come before voters until 2022.
If they had the resources, they would pay for some outside help — the kind of help hired by the Massachusetts Right to Repair Committee, which is pushing a 2020 ballot question related to car maintenance.
"This is an important issue, and we want to make sure we get it done right," said Right to Repair Committee Director Tommy Hickey. His group's prospective ballot measure would force carmakers to share more vehicle information with owners and independent mechanics, not just dealers' service centers.
Hickey is a professional lobbyist. While advocates of some other issues hunted last-minute signatures in winter-like weather, he sat in a cozy coffee shop near the State House. A week before the deadline, he had all the names he needed. Some were gathered by mechanics, and his committee paid a West Springfield firm called JEF Associates to collect the rest.
"As long as we got the signatures, that's what's most important," Hickey said.
Assistance doesn't come cheap. The going rate that companies charge is roughly $1 to $4 per signature, which can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a question on the ballot. JEF Associates and four other petitioning firms declined to discuss their work.
Professional signature gatherers, who may not care about a cause, aren't exactly the grassroots ideal. But veteran political operative Mac D'Alessandro said there's no shame in using them.
"I'm not going to apologize for getting additional help," said D'Alessandro, who is managing a campaign to introduce ranked-choice voting, a system in which voters rank candidates on a ballot in order of preference, and their backup choices could determine the winner if no candidate earns a majority.
D'Alessandro said he's proud that volunteers collected about 70,000 signatures for this possible ballot measure. But the magic number is 80,239, or 3% of the turnout in last year's gubernatorial election.
What's more, no more than a quarter of the signatures can come from any one county, which means fanning out across the state. To hit these goals, the ranked-choice campaign hired a Woburn firm called Ballot Access Management.
"Volunteer operations can always be — you don't know how they're going to produce until you actually see it come in, and we have such a short window," D'Alessandro said.
The work doesn't end when petitions are signed. As D'Alessandro described the signature collection effort in a cramped Boston office, his colleague, Matt Frentz, worked through a pile of petitions, tallying signatures on a laptop.
"I've done this stack," Frentz said. "I'm working on this one. And, you know, a lot of the times, especially if you're collecting in Boston, you'll just get random outliers. So, this last one I put in: We've got one from Hadley, and it's just one signature."
One signature that wouldn't count if it stayed in the Boston pile. That's because each signature must be taken to the city or town where the voter is registered to be certified by local officials.
Signatures can be voided for going to the wrong town, being illegible and for other reasons. A stray mark could invalidate an entire sheet. To be safe, committees really need thousands or even tens of thousands more than the required number.
The task is proving difficult for Dan Farnkoff, who heads an all-volunteer group that wants to ban electric shock therapy on people with disabilities. He's been driving all over the state to hand-deliver the signatures he does have to dozens of town halls.
He's not giving up, but reality is setting in, as the clock ticks down.
"Yeah, yeah, coming down to the wire," Farnkoff said by phone from his car. "We'll probably try again in two years if we don't succeed this time."
For any committee that falls short, signatures don't carry over to the next election cycle. That means starting the petition process all over again.
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This segment aired on November 20, 2019.