Maine’s town clerks are keeping busy verifying signatures for petitions aimed at getting referendum proposals onto the November ballot. And soon state election officials will kick into high gear, as well, to validate the petitions.

The campaigns have until Friday to get signatures delivered to local clerks. Then the petitions must be delivered to state election officials by Feb. 1.

Signature-gathering has been taking place for a number of proposals, including for marijuana legalization, background checks for firearm purchases, ranked-choice voting, higher minimum wage, school funding and a GOP income tax cut/welfare reform proposal.

Each proposal needs to have 61,123 valid signatures of registered voters to advance.

That’s a lot of signatures, but it’s not unprecedented, said Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. Clerks dealt with seven referendums in 2009, he noted.

In Portland, City Clerk Katherine Jones said she has six full-time staff members and four part-timers working on validating signatures. The city also hired some election workers and is using deputy registrars to assist in the effort, as well, she said.

As of last week, about 2,500 pages had been certified in Portland. Each page has about 30 to 60 signatures, so the number of names checked so far could top 100,000.

“It is a lot of work. It consumes the entire office. We’re working petitions from morning until night,” Jones said.

Lewiston City Clerk Kathleen Montejo said her office has been especially busy because her staff didn’t get started in earnest verifying signatures until after a special election for mayor last month.

In her office, all desks are covered with petitions, and stacks are piled up elsewhere. She has four full-time workers – herself included – along with two temporary workers and others loaned from the fire, police and other departments.

“We’re having to play a little bit of catch-up,” she said. “Everyone is bracing for the deadline.”

But clerks in some smaller communities aren’t being slammed. Sue Skidgell, deputy clerk in Mapleton in northern Maine, said the petition sheets arrived in smaller numbers, and the staff has been able to deal with them without extraordinary measures.

The work soon moves to Augusta, where election workers certify the petition circulators, ensure oaths were administered, and make sure they’re signed and dated. Signatures are even checked against those on file from voter registration cards.

Extra workers will assist the deputy secretary of state for elections and seven people who work for her in getting the work done within 30 days, Dunlap said.

Those referendum drives for which at least 61,123 signatures are certified will be forwarded to the Legislature, which has the option of debating them. But recent practice by lawmakers has been to send them directly to the state voters.

Not all of the efforts will succeed, but ranked-choice voting already has been certified. On Thursday, the Maine People’s Alliance delivered its petitions.

“It takes a lot of money, personnel and resources. You have to have a plan, you have to have commitment, you have to have resources to do it,” Dunlap said.

For all the busy work, there’s little time for griping – although Jones says she is frustrated by poor penmanship. Up to 10 percent of signatures are rejected because they’re too sloppy to read, she said.


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