The gathering of signatures to place initiatives on the November ballot is no new phenomenon in Montana, but the private, out-of-state companies under contract to hire and organize petitioners for these campaigns are, and recent reports raise questions about their methods. Missoula is crowded with petitioners for local and state initiatives—including three statewide efforts to limit government power sponsored by the nonprofit group Montanans in Action.
Winifred rancher Trevis Butcher, campaign coordinator for CI-97; which would cap state spending; CI-98, allowing judicial recall by petition; and I-154, weakening the state’s eminent domain powers, says the initiatives are designed to “allow citizens to direct their own government.” The petitioner who approached me with a request to “steal a couple of signatures” expressed little passion for democratic action, however. “This is just a temp job until Monday” he said, “I don’t really want to get into talking about the issues in-depth.” Instead, he was eager to discuss the angsty hand-written poetry he was simultaneously hawking.
So who’s paying the would-be poet the dollar he says he’s getting for every valid signature? National Voter Outreach, an organization circulating petitions in 20 states, is under contract to coordinate Montanans in Action’s signature-gathering in Missoula, says Lorianne Kaserman, a manager for NVO. Kaserman says she’s “on loan” to train paid workers and “supplement them with people in the business.”
Educator’s union MEA-MFT is organizing to prevent CI-97 from reaching the ballot. Communications director Sanna Porte is critical of the signatures-by-contract method: “The state is basically under siege by a small army of out-of-state mercenary signature gatherers,” says Porte. “This is the first time we’ve seen it in Montana. It’s pretty new and pretty weird.” Porte says she’s “concerned that Montanans don’t know what they’re signing.”
Recent inquiries to political practices commissioner Gordy Higgins about the legality of some petitioners’ strategies suggest that such concerns may be founded. According to Higgins, one woman who contacted him felt “duped” by a petitioner who claimed that all three petitions were copies, requiring signatures, of the topmost eminent domain petition.
“We have to put our heads together and decide how to address this,” Higgins says. “The gatherer has to be able to swear that the person knew what they were signing, and if they can’t, it’s our responsibility to file a complaint.”