Signature Gathering: A Budding Business

If you want to get a proposition on the ballot, you’re given a pretty gargantuan task. Not only do you have to collect at least 30,000 signatures from registered voters, you need to make sure those names come from districts across the state. So instead of relying on volunteers, most initiative sponsors bring in professionals. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez caught up with a paid petitioner who’s working on the campaign to regulate marijuana to find out what goes into the job.

(Marie Richie/Flickr)
(Marie Richie/Flickr)

It’s pretty safe to say that as a kid, Jerad Spencer did not dream of talking to strangers about marijuana policy when he grew up. But a couple of years ago, he kind of came into it when he lost his job in Oregon.

“I was in manufacturing, and I’d gotten laid off. They shut the plant down kind of thing. And I was doing my unemployment and I really wanted to work. And I’d seen this thing for OCTA …”

That’s the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act.

“And they had a paid position. And I’m like, ‘Oh, a job! Okay!'”

Now, Spencer is one of the half dozen paid petitioners working on Alaska’s marijuana initiative, which could be on the ballot next August. There’s a whole cottage industry based around every ballot proposition that gets introduced, with the same players often handling signatures for a different initiative or referendum every couple months. The pay isn’t great — by law, you get paid a maximum of a dollar per signature — but it’s apparently enough to keep people like Spencer going.

“It’s hours just walking around in the rain, and trying to talk to strangers and approaching people, which isn’t the easiest thing I don’t think for any of us, really, especially when you get denial after denial after denial and it’s raining and it’s getting dark. And if you’re volunteering, it’s a lot easier to give up versus making a little something.”

Spencer’s been collecting signatures in Juneau for about two weeks. He grew up in Southeast, so he seemed a natural fit for the assignment. Most of the signature gathering efforts have taken place on the road system, but because sponsors want to hit a self-imposed goal of 45,000 signatures by December 1, they’re getting serious about other regions of the state.

If you’re walking around downtown, you’ll be able to spot Spencer because he’s the one carry a clipboard that’s covered in cannabis leaf stickers and wrapped in plastic.

“Yeah, I got all the raingear on.”

It’s a pretty casual job. It mostly involves walking around busy streets, hitting up events, and hanging out in a designated area a couple of times a week. Still, Spencer wants to be professional about it.

“I’d really like to have business cards, especially with some web information on it or when I’d be at the library. Those kinds of things.”

While some controversy surrounds just about every ballot proposition, Spencer says dealing with the marijuana initiative can be extra tricky. While similar propositions passed in Washington and Colorado last year, Alaska would be one of the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, regulate it, and tax it. Spencer says he doesn’t target people based on how they look, but he will soften his approach in some cases.

“If somebody has children especially, I’ll just ask them if they want to sign a petition. Then I don’t have to say that … that word. Because it is, it can be a real hot button with people.”

He says in those cases, he’s had plenty of parents surprise him and not only sign the petition but explain the whole initiative process to their kids. Actually, for the most part, he’s had expectations turned around. So far, the marijuana campaign is at 24,000 signatures, and most of the ones that Spencer has collected have come from people who aren’t interested in using it recreationally.

“One of the reasons a lot of people sign it is for the money. They’d like to see the money in legitimate hands, and they’d like to see it taxed — that sort of thing. And other people it’s about personal freedom, and some people it’s just about ‘let’s vote on it.'”

And the people who have been angriest with him? Well, he says it’s guys who are already growing and selling marijuana.

“Here I am trying to make it legal to where even if they were in the field, they’re not going to make as much money off of it. They’re going to have to pay their taxes. They’re going to have to hire employees.”

Confrontations like that — along with the rain and low pay — make it a more difficult gig than one might expect. Spencer eventually wants to find other work. But for now, a job’s a job, and at least this one gives him plenty to talk about.

agutierrez (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.209.1799 | About Alexandra

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