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Meet the people doing the hard, expensive work of gathering signatures for AZ ballot initiatives

By Mark Brodie, Amber Victoria Singer
Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2024 - 1:06pm
Updated: Wednesday, April 3, 2024 - 7:15am

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Kathy Pettycrew (left) and Jeanne Devine
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Kathy Pettycrew (left) and Jeanne Devine

Arizona voters could have the chance to decide a handful of citizen initiatives on November’s ballot, ranging from abortion rights to how political primaries are conducted to education.

But in order to make it to the ballot, all of those campaigns need to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures from residents. You may have seen some of these signature gatherers outside your grocery store or library.

And collecting those signatures isn’t cheap — campaigns usually need to hire a company. Its paid gatherers to do the job instead of the proverbial army of volunteers who believe in the cause. And those paid signature gatherers are making pretty good money.

ERICA LOPEZ: My name is Erica Lopez, and I’m gathering signatures for Make Elections Fair in Arizona campaign for Advanced Micro Targeting… I’m making $29 an hour.

Erika Lopez
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Erika Lopez

ANDREW KNOUSE: My name is Andrew…Knouse…

How much are you making?

KNOUSE: I think it’s like between $25, $26 an hour.

TERRI CHAMBERLAIN: My name’s Terri Chamberlain and I’m a petitioner…I love it. It’s my passion….

So are you getting paid right now?

CHAMBERLAIN: I am.

Can I ask how much you’re getting paid?

CHAMBERLAIN: I’d rather not say.

But not everyone gathering signatures is collecting a paycheck. Jeanne Devine was sitting right next to Terri Chamberlain at the Tempe Public library, collecting signatures for several candidates and ballot measures.

JEANNE DEVINE: I am collecting signatures for candidates and for issues that I think are very important… I’m only doing it to make a difference in our world… I think it’s not fair unless every candidate has the same amount of money to use to pay petitioners. That’s my personal feeling because otherwise some person has, or you know, a corporation or entity can support a cause. If they have the money, they can pay petitioners and that unduly influences the election.

Andrew Chavez has owned and operated one of those companies that employs signature gatherers since the late ’90s: Petition Partners. He joined The Show to talk more about this.

Andrew Knouse
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Andrew Knouse

MARK BRODIE: Andrew, can you take us through how we got to the place we’re at now, where if a group wants to get an initiative on the ballot, it’s not so much a group of volunteers and like minded people collecting signatures. It can be some of that, but it’s also companies like yours, where signature gatherers get paid.

ANDREW CHAVEZ: Yes, I would be the first to admit that this should not be a business. It’s direct democracy. And our forefathers would roll over in their graves if they thought that somebody was profiting from this.

But it’s a necessary reality given the fact that signatures for initiative and referendum are based off of a percentage of the electorate. So since our modern times in elections, say, 30 years, the electorate as far as people who are registered to vote has expanded enormously since then. So initiative and referendum need, you know, 5%, 10% of the actual, registered voters in Arizona.

So because of that, the number has gotten extremely large. And volunteers actually sort of get dismissed in this realm because it’s so difficult to get this many signatures.

BRODIE: So how does it work for you then? Like, how do you find the people who are going to do this work and how much do you pay them?

CHAVEZ: So we have a steady stable of about 500 people in Arizona that work for us regularly since about 2001. But as you drive through Phoenix or Arizona, you see that the wage that is necessary to keep people employed is getting larger and larger. McDonald’s is paying $18 (an hour) for line cooks.

So we start out about $30 per hour. It is not a very favorable job for most folks. It takes a lot of rejection. It takes some thick skin. But again, it’s an extremely important part of the democracy process in Arizona. And because of that, we have to make sure that the wage is appropriate.

BRODIE: Thirty bucks an hour — that’s a pretty good amount of money.

CHAVEZ: That’s starting. It’s a starting wage.

BRODIE: How high up do you go?

CHAVEZ: There are folks that make about $55 per hour right now, and this is on the initiative level. When we first started talking, this was sort of based on candidates. But on initiative level, you’re not allowed to pay per signature, so an hourly wage is mandatory. Start out $30 per hour.

But on the candidate level, you have a whole separate level of employment, different manpower, where candidates right now are paying, on average, about $13 per signature, which they can do, which you cannot do on an initiative level.

Casee Chavez
Andrew Chavez

BRODIE: And do you do both? Do you have gatherers out for initiatives and for candidates?

CHAVEZ: Yes. Yeah. And you have to have two completely separate levels of manpower just because of the way the legislative body has directed this sort of process. They’ve allowed a lot of easiness and less friction for candidate signatures, where initiative signatures are much more difficult to not only get but pay for.

BRODIE: So what do these employees do during non-election seasons?

CHAVEZ: We keep them employed pretty much throughout the year. I mean, there’s always something to do when it comes to reaching out to voters. The commercials and the media sort of outreach on social media and TV has sort of, what most political consultants have told you have sort of fallen on the wayside.

So person-to-person voter outreach has become very valuable, most recently. So there’s always something, whether it be a local municipal effort or a statewide effort, there’s always something, for our folks to be talking to people for.

BRODIE: Do you find that there are signature gatherers who sort of go from place to place doing this just in different locations?

CHAVEZ: There are. For instance, we’re very unique because we’re based in Arizona. And Arizona is a massive pitfall for people to come do signatures because the legislative body has made it so difficult.

But as you go online and you see the circulator registry, you can see that (presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.), for instance, has almost 600 people registered to circulate in Arizona. Almost every single one of them are from out of state.

So that's possible with candidate signatures, not so much with initiative because there’s so many more pitfalls when it comes to out-of-state circulars.

BRODIE: You mentioned that in your mind this is not a business that should have to be. I wonder like if on some philosophical level, the way that businesses like yours operate and maybe have to operate is — and it might sound too harsh to say, violating the spirit of the of the law — but is it maybe sort of against what the you know, the framers of the state Constitution had in mind in terms of allowing residents of Arizona to put things on the ballot for they and their neighbors to vote on?

CHAVEZ: I completely agree, Mark. Mark, there’s no person in the state will tell you that this shouldn’t be a business. But it’s necessary. In Arizona in 2020, you needed about 300,000 signatures to qualify a constitutional amendment. Now you need close to 600,000 raw signatures.

It's just a testament to how many voters we have engaged. The number of signatures that we need minimum is based on the amount of people who are engaged and registered to vote. So the fact that the number keeps on climbing is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing because more people are engaged.

It’s just the way the law is structured and the way the legislative body has directed us and how we can do business is the reason why it’s become so necessary. Because volunteers can’t do this anymore.

And it’s not a function of whether it’s right or wrong, it’s just reality. Volunteers cannot collect 600,000 signatures in 10 months. It just can’t happen. So if we want to initiate things like anti-smoking in Arizona or recreational marijuana or more money for education, these are things that the legislative body won’t touch. Arizonans want to, though.

So it’s necessary to move forward in the way that we do. Unfortunately, it is a for-profit system. But it’s necessary.

BRODIE: Do you find that as the number of signatures needed — for example, to put issues on the ballot — increases, do you have to hire more people? Like you mentioned, you have a pretty steady stable of signature gatherers. Do you have to add to that as the number of signatures required for certain things goes up?

CHAVEZ: Of course. Even if we have 500 people who are ready for us to work at each time, to collect that many signatures in this amount of time in the Arizona heat, especially in March and April, May, when it starts getting hotter, yeah. You need to have 1,200 people.

BRODIE: How easy or difficult is it for you to find those people?

CHAVEZ: It’s very difficult. Any employer right now on an entry level job will tell you how difficult it is to find people who are willing to work for that wage. And again, I’m offering a pretty good wage per hour.

But you have to understand that most people don’t want to interact with circulators. I don’t know, Mark, if you’ve interacted with people at your supermarket, but it’s not it’s not the most favorable thing when you just want to go in and get a gallon of milk.

But a lot of people who want to be civically engaged will stop and talk to other folks. But it is a very difficult job. And so the wage is appropriate.

BRODIE: So what do you think the future is going to look like for businesses like yours?

CHAVEZ: Well everybody says that paper’s going away. But again, the second you make this digital, you’re going to make it easier. And that to me is the point in which you know the Legislature is not going to go that far.

And if you know anything about E-Qual, E-Qual is the system in which candidates can get digital signatures online. That’s not available for initiative and referendum. And you asked the question, why? The simplest answer is: It makes it more easy.

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