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Ballot initiatives in the era of COVID-19

A voter signs a petition to place a measure on the statewide ballot. (Photo: Svineyard, via Shutterstock)

It’s never easy to get initiatives qualified for the ballot, but this year of the COVID-19 pandemic is the worst ever.

Organizations busily trying to get enough signatures to qualify their measure of choice had their efforts abruptly halted two weeks ago because of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s sweeping stay-at-home order. Signature collectors who formerly approached people at grocery stores or crowded street corners and events no longer have that option.

To get an initiative on the November 2020 ballot, organizations need 623,212 signatures to change a statute and 997,139 signatures to change the state constitution.

While organizations technically have until April 21 to turn in signatures to qualify for the November ballot, the shutdown effectively means that those that didn’t collect enough signatures by mid-March probably won’t make it. At best they can hope for possibly qualifying for November 2022.

“I’ve never seen anything like this and I’ve been doing this for 35 years,” said Fred Kimball, owner of Kimball Petition Management.

The backers of an attempt to peg property taxes of commercial and industrial properties to their market value rather than purchase price, submitted 1.7 million signatures to the secretary of state  for verification. The signatures — far more than the minimum required — were collected before the COVID-19 rules went into effect. If the measure qualifies for the November ballot, which is likely, it will place before voters a major effort to rewrite the landmark Proposition 13 of 1978.

Supporters of another proposed ballot measure, which would raise $5.5 billion for California’s stem cell agency, are making an online pitch to provide documents to voters who can then mail in the paperwork. Click here for story. 

To get an initiative on the November 2020 ballot, organizations need 623,212 signatures to change a statute and 997,139 signatures to change the state constitution.

Kimball believes he was able to collect enough signatures for the two initiatives he is working on – one which would raise the amount of damages people could seek on medical negligence cases and another that would increase requirements for dialysis clinics.

“Every day, you’re under the fear that someone is going to test positive,” he said. “I’m worried about everybody here.”

But now, Kimball is faced with the challenge of confirming the signatures to make sure they are from unique registered voters. In a normal year, he said he has 75-100 people crammed in his office checking signatures. But this year, he has only six workers in house while the rest are looking at petitions from home.

“I haven’t done this ever,” he said. “Usually the petitions never leave the site of the office. There’s a lot of trust you put into the workers. It’s very difficult.”

Some employees have quit because they don’t want to touch papers that have been handled by so many people and thus could be contaminated with the virus. To deal with that concern, Kimball has set a new rule that new signatures pages that come in his office must sit for one week before anyone touches them again. He also requires employees in house to wear masks and gloves.

“Every day, you’re under the fear that someone is going to test positive,” he said. “I’m worried about everybody here.”

Adding to the challenge, is that the counties, who ultimately validate the signatures, are struggling with their own issues. Most have shut down all offices, requiring initiative supporters to set up appointments to drop off petitions. Much of their staff is also working at home, which sets up the new burden of getting the petitions to employees.

State law allows counties to randomly verify at least 3 percent or 500 signatures on petitions, which ever number is greater.

Joseph Holland, the Santa Barbara County clerk, recorder, assessor and registrar of voters, said his office hasn’t even finished certifying the March 3 election and is facing employees out sick and suddenly charged with taking care of their children after schools closed. “We are operating with a skeleton crew,” said Holland, who also serves as president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials.

While his employees are considered essential under the shut-down order, figuring out logistics about where they sit is an issue. They can no longer sit side by side at cubicles as that would violate the 6-foot social distance rule. “It has reduced our capacity by half.”

For petition signatures that come in on a single page, the county is able to scan them and electronically send them to employees working at home for validation. But the county is not able to scan petitions that come in booklet form. Those must still be validated by employees at the office, Holland said.

“If we have to do (a full count) on more than one petition, then we’re going to have issues.” — Joseph Holland

State law allows counties to randomly verify at least 3 percent or 500 signatures on petitions, which ever number is greater. If the random sample indicates there are more than 110 percent of the required number of signatures, the initiative qualifies for the ballot. If the sample indicates there are fewer than 95 percent of required signature, it fails. But if the random sample falls between 95 percent and fewer than 110 percent, the county must do a full check of each signature.

“If we have to do (a full count) on more than one petition, then we’re going to have issues,” Holland said. “It’s going to be a real challenge.”

Kurt Oneto, a partner at Nielsen Merksamer, a law firm that specializes in political and government law, said the governor or Legislature could potentially make some changes to ease everyone’s burden and make the initiative validation process go more smoothly.

They could lower the threshold for the random sampling, for instance.  Statisticians say the counties could check only 1 percent of signatures and the projections would be virtually the same. They could also cut the projected number of signatures from 110 percent to 102 percent.

Oneto believes the state should do everything possible to make sure the election process is fair during this unusual time, pointing out that voters are legally entitled to vote for initiatives.

“To be deprived of that does seem to be unfair,” he said. “I trust that the legislature and the governor will do what they think is appropriate to protect voter rights.”

 


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