By Amanda Zoch
In April of a general election year, citizen initiative campaigns are typically in full swing, collecting signatures, raising money and building momentum for the November election.
But not this year.
The election world as we know it has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. While headlines focus on delayed elections and mail voting expansions, initiative campaigns across the nation have also been affected.
Right now, initiative campaigns are effectively stalled. Although many campaigns have until this summer to collect the requisite number of signatures, current physical distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders pose significant challenges to gathering any signatures.
With most legislatures out of session, no legislation has yet been enacted to address this issue, though some state executives have announced modifications to the initiative process.
The Oklahoma secretary of state paused the 90-day circulation period for initiative petitions, temporarily delaying signature collection and the submission deadline. Once the governor lifts the state’s emergency declaration, sponsors will be able to revive their collection efforts for the new, yet-to-be calculated deadline.
In Utah, the governor issued an executive order allowing sponsors to distribute petitions electronically. Voters will still need to print the petitions and provide a wet (as opposed to electronic) signature, but now they can scan the signed petition and return it via fax or email.
Many proponents of the citizen initiative are calling for electronic signatures, which no state yet allows (though some do for candidate petitions). A 2020 pending initiative in California, however, would seek to change that in the Golden State—but whether the sponsors will be able to gather the requisite physical signatures during a shelter-in-place order remains to be seen.
With the future of so many initiatives uncertain, those of us in the initiative states may find our November ballots much shorter than usual.
Amanda Zoch is an NCSL legislative policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.