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December 3rd, 2003 Mari Brookshire | News Stories
 

Hired Pen

Confessions of a failed signature gatherer.

     
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Hired Pen
IMAGE: CHAD CROWE
Last Tuesday, anti-tax activists turned in 147,340 signatures to election officials in Salem.

Four of them were mine.

Well, they weren't my signatures, but I was responsible for them. Earlier this fall, I spent a few painful hours as a paid signature gatherer. It wasn't my idea, but that of a sinister editor who seemed unconcerned that I didn't support the effort I was about to aid and abet. I'm not the first intern to prostitute her values on the way up the career ladder, but I must have been one of the most inept.

SCENE I, Oct. 9: The Orientation

It's early on a Thursday morning, and I am not in the mood to apply for any job, let alone one I don't care about. But there I am in a low-slung office building on East Burnside with about a dozen other potential circulators. That's the term for people who gather signatures to put measures on the ballot. In this case, the effort is to derail an income-tax increase passed by the 2003 Legislature by referring it to the ballot, where it would presumably be defeated.

I am directed to a small room in the back of the facility where about 15 chairs are strewn about for the pre-employment orientation. I keep telling myself that I am doing this as an undercover operation and should have no fear of incrimination. It's a diverse group--black, white, off-the-rack, Goodwill--united not by a philosophical abhorrence of taxes but by our love of a paycheck. The ad in The Oregonian said the job paid $10 an hour for petitioning, with the potential to make three times that.

In walks Tracy, an overgrown cherub exuding car-salesman enthusiasm. He briefly explains the new measure and stresses that, because of a ballot measure backed by the union-funded Voter Education Project, we are not paid per signature. We're expected to get at least 10 signatures per hour. Anything less will result in retraining or dismissal. Anything more could result in a pay raise, and according to Tracy, voters will be eager to sign up.

As I sit silently and avoid eye contact, Tracy hands out a cheat sheet titled "Taxpayer Defense Fund" with "key facts" for circulators and our unofficial mission statement: "We believe that Oregonians should have a voice in this major political decision." We're not anti-tax, or anti-government. We're pro-democracy!

We do not have to sign anything except our W-4 and a note stating we've never been involved with the Voter Education Project.

The job interview immediately follows the orientation. In an adjacent room, Tracy gives the same spiel to everyone. Based on our time together, and my anti-social behavior, he tells me, "You have just the personality to do this!" I'm hired.

SCENE II, Oct. 12: The Doubts

It's three days after orientation, and I'm having motivation issues. This is worse than being unemployed.

Ability isn't the issue. Hell, I took drama class in high school. I can at least pretend to be a petitioner for a day. No, the problem's self-esteem. I've agreed to go out and tell people in not so many words that this is all I am qualified to do. This is a job for someone named Benny, not me.

SCENE III, Oct. 14: On the Streets

I am at the 82nd Avenue Home Depot, standing on the edge of the parking lot. This is it! This will be my spot! I cheerfully shout out my greeting: "Excuse me, are you a registered voter?" (I also plan a speech to be used in case I run into someone I know, explaining it as a journalistic exercise.)

After 15 minutes of hell, I realize that people who like remodeling their kitchen are either rude (they blow past me without acknowledging my come-on) or unpatriotic (imagine, not a single registered voter!). I bail out with no signatures. At this rate, I'm headed for "retraining" or a pink slip.

SCENE IV, Oct. 23: Take 2

Wild Oats, Southeast 30th and Division. I figured health-food shoppers would be more politically attuned, but I failed to realize that the alfalfa-sprout crowd was a tough sell with a no-taxes pitch.

After an hour's work, I now realize that to the passersby I am scum, the bottom of the barrel, the turd on the street that needs to be avoided. There are no signatures on my petition. I finally succumb to begging a friend I see on the street into signing the thing regardless of his support for the measure. My moral defeat. My shame and discomfort not only accompany me home, but join me for dinner and tuck me in at night. My confidence, once brimming with sarcastic remarks, has evaporated into a tiny puddle of self-doubt.

SCENE V, Nov. 12: Redemption

I decide to give it one more shot. It's not about the job or the article anymore--this is personal.

As I head to the Freddy's at Southeast 82nd and Foster, I'm feeling good. My goal: three signatures in 15 minutes (which almost translates to 10 per hour). As incentive I've decided that, if successful, I'll purchase two 24-ounce beers to consume when I return home, kind of like trophies after a big game.

I smile. I chat. "Registered voter?" Sure, I still get the once-over from a few untouchables, but I'm back. Oh yeah, three sigs in under 15 minutes. Now for the High Life.

FINAL SCENE, Nov. 13: Day of Reckoning

Despite my personal victory the previous day, the fact remains: It took me five weeks to get four signatures. Surely, and mercifully, I will be fired. Oh, the glory of it.

I enter the building on Burnside with an image of getting thrown out and having my paycheck kept from me. I turn in my timesheet stating I've worked 2.75 hours. That means I'm owed about $27, or $6.75 per signature. To my disappointment, Tracy asks me to stay on. I gracefully decline.

EPILOGUE:

Two weeks ago, Tracy and his colleagues filed suit against the state elections office, saying the new ban on per-signature payments is unworkable, in part, because it prevents them from attracting quality circulators.

Based on my experience, it's not the payment scheme that's the problem. Tracy and his employers took a group of untrained hired guns and sent us out without any supervision to try to get signatures for something most of us didn't believe in. And when we came back with signature hauls at a bounty working out to $6 apiece, they told us to keep it up. The incentive for these circulators was not the merits of the initiative but the prospect of an easy paycheck and flexible hours--or in my case, a few cheap beers and a clip for my files.

 
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