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It is petition season in some places for activists trying to put questions on state ballots next year. States can require tens or even hundreds of thousands of signatures to show an issue is worthy of voters' consideration. That means people committed to a cause are knocking on a whole lot of doors. Or, as Callum Borchers from member station WBUR reports, they're paying professional signature-gatherers to do the work for them.
CALLUM BORCHERS, BYLINE: It's been a cold autumn in Boston with temperatures that could freeze petitioners' fingers to their clipboards. But in a cozy coffee shop near the Massachusetts Statehouse, Tommy Hickey doesn't have that problem. He hired a company to collect signatures for a possible ballot question about car repairs.
TOMMY HICKEY: As long as we've got the signatures, that's what's most important.
BORCHERS: Hickey is a professional lobbyist running a highly organized campaign. December 4 is the deadline in Massachusetts to submit more than 80,000 certified signatures to the secretary of state. And while some activists are biting their nails, Hickey's group has been done for a while.
HICKEY: This is an important issue, and we want to make sure we get it done right.
BORCHERS: A campaign to bring ranked-choice voting to Massachusetts also wants to make sure, so campaign manager Mac D'Alessandro hired pros, too. He acknowledges that renting petitioners who may not care about a cause isn't the grassroots ideal, but he says there's no shame in it.
MAC D'ALESSANDRO: I'm not going to apologize for, you know, getting additional help.
BORCHERS: D'Alessandro says he's proud that volunteers collected most of the required signatures, but he couldn't risk coming up short.
D'ALESSANDRO: Volunteer operations can always be - you don't know how they're going to produce until you actually see it come in. And we have such a short window.
BORCHERS: Only about half of states allow everyday citizens to petition for ballot measures, and the process varies widely, says Josh Altic. He tracks state measures for the website Ballotpedia.
JOSH ALTIC: In some states like Illinois, the process is so restrictive that it's just almost never used.
BORCHERS: Some states that do allow petitions have banned paid signature gathering. The practice is still legal in Massachusetts, but other rules make it hard to put questions on the ballot. For example, no more than a quarter of a petition's signatures can come from any one county. Altic says requirements like this are part of a national trend toward curbing ballot questions.
ALTIC: For the last three decades, we've seen kind of this gradual but pretty steady decline in the usage of citizen initiatives and just in direct democracy in general.
BORCHERS: There's another barrier, too; professional help doesn't come cheap. Five petitioning firms contacted by NPR all declined to discuss their work, but activists say the going rate is 1- to $4 a signature, which can really add up. The price is too steep for a group trying to restore voting rights to people incarcerated in Massachusetts. So in a grocery store parking lot in Boston, volunteer LaShena Jones-Butler offers a pen and paper to strangers who came for milk and bread.
LASHENA JONES-BUTLER: How do you feel about prisoners having the right to vote? All right. So you're from Boston.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.
JONES-BUTLER: All right, so let me just get your signature. Thank you.
BORCHERS: Jones-Butler and some of her fellow signature-gatherers have been incarcerated themselves, making this a personal cause. As a shopper exits the store, one of Jones-Butler's colleagues takes off in hot pursuit.
JONES-BUTLER: Look. She's walking (laughter).
BORCHERS: Look at the hustle. Look at - this is commitment, right? I mean, look at her.
JONES-BUTLER: (Laughter) You know you got to walk with her (laughter).
BORCHERS: She will not be deterred.
JONES-BUTLER: (Laughter) Now we just hope she gets that signature, boy...
BORCHERS: I mean, if she's successful, she'll get two.
JONES-BUTLER: Yeah, she's got it. Bam. Oh, get him, girl.
BORCHERS: Campaigns that can't afford to pay for signature gathering can't afford to miss any opportunity.
For NPR News, I'm Callum Borchers in Boston.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAKEY INSPIRED'S "MOVING ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.