Rich Miller

Rich Miller

Not your grandfather’s petition drive

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By Rich Miller

I’ve been fascinated by election petition-gathering season this year because of the adjusted primary schedule, the crazy Omicron variant, and the prevailing fear of crime, not to mention the awful weather.

Petition season was always during the fall. But because the primary was moved to June 28, petition circulators now have to get out there in the dead of winter, during the pandemic and crime surges.

As Rep. Nick Smith (D-Chicago) said recently on Rep. Mike Zalewski’s (D-Riverside) “Have All Voted Who Wish” podcast, voters have been increasingly reluctant to come to their front doors for years, long before the pandemic. These days, it’s far more difficult to convince folks to answer when the canvassers knock.

RichMiller

Rich Miller

Rep. Smith’s solution was to ask his volunteers to work their own blocks, with the expectation that each person would gather 10 signatures.

But that only works for someone with an experienced and fairly large network like Smith has. What about others?

Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) is also the 49th Ward Democratic committeeperson and threw a boozy “petition party” in mid-January, advertising it on social media. She said the event was “amazing,” netting 625 signatures in three hours for 18 different candidate petitions.

I’ve also been told of members doing things like setting up shop in their local Starbucks and collecting signatures from people while they were waiting for their orders.

But Rep. Dan Didech (D-Buffalo Grove) is being hailed by some of his colleagues as a “signature machine” for what one legislator calls his “house calls” program.

Didech came up with the idea of scheduling home visits with voters in his district to collect petition signatures. “Sometimes,” a fellow House Democrat said, people even “grab a few neighbors so you can get a group.”

Didech pushed back hard against some fellow House Dems who wanted to reduce the statutory signature requirements during the early January session. “But I got 1,000 signatures in 10 days, so I feel vindicated,” Didech told me. “I’m not special. Everyone can do that.” He said he finished so fast that he’s now helping others, including those who wanted to reduce the signature requirement.

Rep. Didech explained that, because of the pandemic, he had already transitioned his voter outreach away from in-person contact at the doors and toward Facebook and direct mail. “People are used to communicating with me on those channels,” he said.

Didech posted a photo of a map of his new district on Facebook and told his followers that he still needed some signatures. “Please comment or send me a message if it’s OK for me to stop by your house this weekend,” Didech wrote in the Facebook post.

“That one post generated 150 signatures,” Didech said.

Rep. Didech also sent a direct mailer to his supporters and strong Democrats in his new district to ask people to email him when it would be convenient for him to stop by their homes. Didech said his email inbox “completely blew up.”

Didech’s formula worked so well for one Chicago Democrat that she only half-jokingly called Didech “the master” last week.

Forty-seventh Ward Democratic Committeeperson Paul Rosenfeld is using Didech’s methods “with a lot of success.” Rosenfeld said he’s collected “over 500 signatures on 14 different petitions” that way.

But maybe not everyone can replicate this effort. First-time candidates or newer members with small supporter networks can’t always just magically generate home visits. Some districts aren’t as “connected” online as they are up in Buffalo Grove or the 47th Ward.

Even so, longtime Statehouse operative Mike Cassidy told me the story of how his 13-year-old daughter, Cate, finally took an interest in politics in January, so he agreed to help some friends gather signatures as a way of getting her involved.

Cassidy asked Cate to text her friends the night before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when they figured people would be home, to ask if she and her parents could come by with petitions.

“She not only went through her middle school phone book and social media contacts, but we pulled names from our Christmas card list,” Cassidy marveled. “We drove around town for about four hours, collecting close to 100 signatures.”

“I have circulated petitions my entire career,” Cassidy said, which used to involve going door-to-door. “But unlike waiting for people to get home from work or targeting weekends, these days more people work from home due to COVID.” He said people were “happy” to have guests who they knew and were confident were masked and vaccinated.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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