PORTLAND, Maine — On a cold Tuesday morning along Congress Street, Marcus Welch managed to stop a woman while collecting signatures for a petition to place an initiative proposing to increase school funding on the 2016 ballot.
But once he launched into a brief explanation of the initiative in front of the Subway restaurant here, he lost her: “I don’t want to do that right now,” she said.
“That’s that cold factor right there,” said Welch of Lewiston, as the woman walked away. “If it were August, they’d be glad to be outside.”
But signature collectors will be busy as the weather gets colder, because Maine voters may decide on six citizen initiatives in 2016, which would be an all-time high since that method of lawmaking took root in the state more than a century ago.
To get on the ballot, each campaign must collect more than 61,000 signatures from registered Maine voters by Feb. 1. Supporters of ranked-choice voting qualified in November, and backers of an increased minimum wage say they have enough signatures to qualify.
Still, others are collecting signatures, including the school funding effort, the Maine Republican Party in its bid to cut taxes and reform welfare, backers of marijuana legalization and supporters of requiring mandatory background checks before private gun sales.
It’s been a boon to paid signature gatherers, who are working longer than normal as winter draws nearer. But as the cold sets in, some say it may be harder for them to stop enough people to qualify.
So far in 2015, three groups have spent more than $275,000 on signature gathering and related expenses, but that doesn’t account for all signature spending.
An analysis of state records show that the background check, marijuana and ranked-choice voting campaigns have spent $275,000 on signatures or related expenses in 2015 as of September, but that’s incomplete and other efforts are using paid gatherers as well.
Campaigns typically rely on a combination of volunteer and paid signature gatherers. Paid efforts can take different forms — they could include college students, paid canvassers or hired guns.
The latter describes Welch, who works for Olympic Consulting of Lewiston, which has worked on the marijuana, Republican and education efforts.
But the flashiest paid effort so far has been from Maine Moms Demand Action, which is leading the background check campaign that’s being funded by Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun control group connected to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In October, the group paid nearly $191,000 in consulting fees to Fieldworks LLC, a progressive Washington, D.C., firm that manages petition drives. Since then, Fieldworks has been posting advertisements on Craigslist for temporary jobs in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor promising up to $625 per week with no previous experience required.
Olympic Consulting got nearly $41,000 from Legalize Maine, which was running an effort to legalize marijuana until it merged in October with another one run by the Marijuana Policy Project.
Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, has gotten nearly $34,000 combined to gather signatures for Legalize Maine and the ranked-choice voting campaign, which paid nearly $12,000 more to individual gatherers.
Those campaigns also have used volunteers: Beth Allen, field director for the background check campaign, said 100 volunteers canvassed at polls on Election Day, and Felicia Knight, a spokeswoman for the ranked-choice effort, said 70 percent of signatures came from volunteers.
Complete numbers on paid effort from other campaigns aren’t available, either because those expenses haven’t had to be reported yet or they can’t be isolated in finance reports.
Mike Tipping, a spokesman for the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive group running the minimum wage campaign, said most signatures were collected by volunteers, with Maine People’s Alliance canvassers collecting “a significant amount.”
But paid collectors will be more and more in demand as the weather gets colder and the deadline nears.
“It’s been a while since I’ve had this much work,” said Stavros Mendros of Lewiston, who is president of Olympic Consulting and chairman the Androscoggin County chapter of the Maine Republican Party, but the stakes are getting higher for the groups still collecting.
The deadline to get signatures to the state is Feb. 1, but city and town clerks also have to certify them before that, and since collectors largely rely on getting signatures in public places, cold weather makes it more difficult.
Mendros said he “could see them all failing” if there are a few big snowstorms between now and January.
“I think anyone who’s getting signatures is going to be really hard-pressed,” he said, “and there’s lots of things people don’t realize when it gets cold: Not only do [collectors] have to be willing to work, somebody has to be willing to stop.”
In particular, the Republican referendum might have benefited from an earlier start. Last week, Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett said it had about 10,000 signatures after Election Day, only a day after it was able to start collecting signatures.
That lagged other campaigns’ reputed totals on Election Day alone: Tipping said his effort got 30,000 signatures at the polls, and the school funding effort reported getting more than 20,000.
It may get harder to close the gap into December and January, but Mendros said Bennett “has a good plan,” which the chairman said involves his county committees, which will be incentivized to collect signatures with money for each one.
“It’s a daunting task, and we are involving as many people as possible in the effort,” Bennett said.