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Bridge Michigan
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Soaring signature costs may bar some candidates from making Michigan ballot

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Candidates rely on professional signature gatherers to qualify for the ballot in Michigan, and the nationwide worker shortage has sent costs spiraling. (Shutterstock)

LANSING—Michigan candidates have until Tuesday to submit enough signatures to appear on the ballot. Many haven’t.

It’s not because they are unpopular. Rather, the soaring cost of gathering signatures is slowing them down.

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Largely indistinguishable from volunteers to the general public, paid circulators hired to collect signatures to get candidates and initiatives on the ballot have been common in Michigan and across the nation.

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But this year, those professionals are feeling the same pressure felt in the rest of the economy: A lack of seasoned workers in Michigan has raised the cost of signature gathering up to $20 apiece — four times the rate of $5 to $7 per signature Ferndale businessman Shawn Wilmoth charged four years ago.

“First time in years I’ve seen numbers like this in Michigan,” Wilmoth, who runs signature gathering firm First Choice Contracting LLC, told Bridge Michigan. “Costs have skyrocketed.”

But as prices rise, campaigns are feeling the pinch, according to campaign managers, political consultants and professional firm owners like Wilmoth.

And, they said, that’s not the only problem: Signature collection efforts have proven sluggish this year due to a mixture of high prices for professional circulators, lack of in-person events and, for congressional candidates, an uncertainty over redistricting maps that are challenged in court.

“This (is) probably one of the most difficult times to be getting signatures,” said Jonathan Kinloch, 13th congressional district chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.

Gubernatorial candidates must collect at least 15,000 valid signatures under state law. The minimum threshold is 1,000 for congressional candidates and varies for judicial candidates depending on the population of the county they are running in.

By Friday morning, seven of the 14 gubernatorial candidates had submitted their signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office. Republicans Perry Johnson, James Craig, Tudor Dixon and Kevin Rinke are among those who had not filed, records show.  (Officials with Dixon and Rinke told Bridge they intend to file by Tuesday, while Johnson and Craig representatives did not return messages seeking comment) 

Of all active gubernatorial campaigns, at least four have hired paid firms to boost the signature collecting effort. Wilmoth, for example, told Bridge his firm collected signatures for Republican gubernatorial hopeful Michael Markey, who turned in roughly 21,800 signatures in March. 

“Any campaign that says they have enough signatures but hasn’t filed is still out there hustling,” said Democratic consultant Joe DiSano, who said he has had 25 years of experience in petition management since working on the late Michigan U.S. Rep. John Dingell’s campaign in 1996. 

“I think if we don’t see some announcements of people dropping off their signatures … by Friday, I’d be reluctant to consider them a serious campaign.”

Campaigns hire professional firms to gather signatures to reduce the workload on volunteers, but also to ensure that signatures are valid and can withstand a challenge from opponents.

Some candidates and strategists have criticized the practice, arguing the practice gives an edge to wealthy candidates and poses a barrier to those without sufficient campaign funds to buy signatures.

“The petition process persuaded some people not to run for office or to run for a lower seat than they originally planned,” said Al Williams, former Democratic candidate for state Legislature and president of the African American Leadership Institute in Detroit. “I think the petition process does do a disservice to people who do not have the funds readily available.”

But Wilmoth, owner of the Ferndale firm, compared his business to going to the doctor for a wellness check.

“You want to have someone work on your car, you’ve got to go to a mechanic. You want someone to check you out, make sure you are healthy, you go to a doctor,” he said. “Same concept. You want to get on the ballot? Why not go to a professional signature gathering firm?”

‘Costs have skyrocketed’

One reason costs are increasing is because seasoned workers have flocked to California, where there’s a higher demand this year for paid circulators to gather signatures for ballot measures, Wilmoth said. There are 40 active measures in California, compared to just over a dozen in Michigan. 

“A lot of the petition campaigns that were supposed to happen a year or two ago were not able to circulate,” Wilmoth said. “This year, there’s an overabundance of issues in California, so everybody that does petition campaigns professionally is pretty much all in California right now.”

Paid circulators are almost always in short supply during campaign season because campaigns across the country need them “at the same time,” DiSano said.

“The demand on this pool of labor is seasonal,” he said. “Everyone who needs volunteers or paid volunteers needs them at the same time.”

The ongoing inflation and the (record) number of ballot initiatives and candidates this year also accounted for the soaring prices, said Jamie Roe, a Republican consultant who manages the campaigns for gubernatorial hopeful Kevin Rinke and GOP-backed ballot initiative Secure MI Vote.

“We are seeing hyper-inflation in the signature gathering marketplace,” he said.

In addition to the tight market of professional circulators, the lack of in-person events — a lingering effect of the pandemic — makes it harder for voters to sign, Williams said. The Trade Union Leadership Council in Detroit used to be bustling with voters every night, he said, but it has reduced hours following the pandemic.

“It used to be that you can go to the TULC … on any given night and find a whole bunch of voters, but they are not open regularly now,” he said. “It’s just been difficult for most candidates to get in front of people.”

For congressional campaigns, the late release of Census data — used for redistricting this year — shortened the window for candidates to make the ballot in their new district, Kinloch said. Some candidates further delayed their filing and signature gathering efforts because of the legal challenges against the new congressional maps, he said.

“It created a domino effect,” Kinloch said of the delayed redistricting process.

‘A necessary evil’

The difficulty of signature gathering, especially in a competitive race, is one of the exact reasons candidates employ professional firms, said campaigns and paid circulators. 

But others have argued the practice gives wealthy campaigns an upper hand, allowing them to effectively buy their way onto the ballot.

The state has seen an “influx” of professional firms from out of state in the past decade, DiSano told Bridge.

They serve their purpose, said David Yardley, campaign manager for GOP gubernatorial hopeful Michael Brown. The Brown campaign used professional companies to both validate signatures collected by volunteers and gather signatures in congressional districts with fewer campaign volunteers, Yardley said. Candidates running for governor must collect at least 100 signatures from at least half of the state’s congressional districts under state law.

“In areas where we might not have a strong volunteer base, they were able to go into that area and get the signatures for us,” Yardley said.

Frizel Stanley, a paid circulator in Detroit, said his work cannot be done by volunteers only. 

“On a volunteer basis, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “Volunteers may volunteer for a day, or two, or three. Once they realize what it takes to actually do the job, two or three days, they are through.”

Stanley does not work for a firm. He said he has run a one-man shop since he started collecting signatures in 1973 for Coleman Young — the first Black mayor of Detroit. But if he did not support what they stood for, Stanley said, “there was no amount of money that they could give me to work for them anyway.”

The industry of professional gathering firms makes “serious money,” Stanley contended. But, he said, out-of-state paid circulators do not understand Michigan communities as much as he does.

“If you have people to work for you, to get your signatures, from out of state, what do they really know about you?” Stanley said. “How knowledgeable are they about that particular position that you are running for?”

The proliferation of those firms, DiSano said, undermines what signature collection is meant to do: reflect the amount of grassroots support behind every candidate and ballot issue.

“It makes the process far more money-oriented,” he told Bridge. “It’s not a question of grassroots support getting anything on the ballot like it used to be. …Now it’s much more a corporate function.”

Joe Hohler III, candidate for the 9th Circuit judge in Kalamazoo County, submitted roughly 1,650 signatures to the Secretary of State’s office earlier this month. The minimum requirement is to collect 1,000 signatures for the seat, Hohler said. All were collected by his family, friends and himself, he said.

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Hohler said he understands the need for statewide campaigns to use professional services since they must cover more ground and gather more signatures than local candidates. But he has never thought of using them.

“It felt like cheating,” Hohler said. “(But) it’s probably a necessary evil (for bigger races).”

Hohler said there’s more merit in collecting signatures by oneself.

“(Voters) could literally ask me hard questions and I would be the one standing there trying to answer it,” he said. “If you can’t motivate volunteers to help get you on the ballot for, say, governor, that could be a problem that you need to address.”

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