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click to enlarge New Approach Missouri had to gather enough signatures in six of eight congressional districts, but narrowly missed the mark. Click in for more detail. - ILLUSTRATION BY BRITTANI SCHLAGER
  • ILLUSTRATION BY BRITTANI SCHLAGER
  • New Approach Missouri had to gather enough signatures in six of eight congressional districts, but narrowly missed the mark. Click in for more detail.

Angelo Paparella says he's "sick to his stomach" over the demise of New Approach's ballot initiative.

"It had nothing to do with the appeal of the issue or the response of the public," he acknowledges. And yet from his office in Los Angeles, the president of the country's largest signature gathering firm insists that PCI doesn't deserve to be singled out for the campaign's failure.

This was no normal year, you see. This was the year of ballot initiatives run wild. "You can't look at Missouri without looking at what was going on nationally," Paparella says.

He's been working on marijuana ballot initiatives since 1996, when a California ballot proposition became the first successful medical cannabis measure passed at the state level.

The industry has been good to Paparella. According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, Paparella's business raked in $28 million to run ballot campaigns from 2010 to 2014 alone. However, the 2016 election brought the initiative market to a near-breaking point. The Associated Press reports that more than 150 statewide initiatives were in play during the general election. California's ballot alone featured seventeen, of which PCI had contracts on four. Leading up to election day 2016, Paparella's company found itself juggling about two-dozen ballot initiatives in a handful of states.

"There was a strain on the entire system," he says. "Signature gathering was getting more difficult as the year went by."

Attracting competent collectors proved challenging. Competing initiative campaigns around the country were willing to shell out high prices per-signature. Collectors could play the field, picking and choosing the ballot measures that paid the highest dollar.

"It was something I've never seen before in the 30 years of doing this," Paparella says. "I did not at all anticipate how much was going on across the country, just absolutely unprecedented. That's what happens in politics; you don't expect it until it happens."

It's not like New Approach was throwing around chump change. According to campaign finance records, New Approach paid PCI a total of $1.3 million in 2016. All that to not make the ballot.

When asked about his April 28 email — the one revealing that District 2 was "in trouble" ten days before the deadline — Paparella retorts that the 20,000-signature deficit wasn't really the emergency that Payne makes it out to be. Those 20,000 signatures were supposed to function as a mathematical cushion to protect against the normal spread of lost signatures.

But even Paparella acknowledges that the collection operations hit snags as the deadline approached.

"Time is the biggest issue on signature gathering," he cautions. "Starting a petition drive as early as possible is key to minimizing risk."

Paparella's point could serve as a fitting epitaph on the gravestone of New Approach's ballot initiative. Just a few more days of signature collection could have yielded hundreds more valid signatures. Starting the signature-collection process in February, just three months before the deadline, proved to be a damning mistake.

But it wasn't just Missouri where collectors ran into trouble. Across the country, Paparella says, initiatives struggled to meet their goals. The market had reached a saturation point. It was common for groups of collectors to go into the field with three or four different petitions, hoping to get voters to sign several at one time.

It's worth noting that PCI wasn't directly hiring its signature collectors. Larger firms like PCI tend to manage the big-picture strategy while turning to medium-sized contractors to handle the collectors. And even then, those contractors may turn around and hire smaller companies to deploy the actual signature collectors across a state.

Brian Meeter runs one of those small signature-collection firms, based in Jacksonville. Meeter and his crew of about dozen collectors were hired by Michigan-based company, Elite Campaigns Inc., which was coordinating signature-collection in parts of Missouri under PCI's direction.

Meeter and his crew were first deployed to District 7. (He was among the collectors arrested for trespassing in the Joplin DMV on April 28.) Meeter was then called into District 2 to bolster the ranks as the deadline approached.

Although he avoided additional run-ins with the law, Meeter says District 2 was a headache all its own.

"We need a location where we can work where we don't get chased off," Meeter says. "In District 2, we came in at the last minute and we didn't have a lot of choices where we were working around. There were no public spaces, so we were working strip malls and gas stations. It's hard to find registered voters unless you go to their house. It needed to be managed differently; we should have started in District 2 as a door-to-door campaign."

PCI had been one of several bidders for the New Approach contract. The firm came highly recommended by the Drug Policy Alliance, a national drug reform group which used its political arm to throw $390,000 into New Approach's coffers.

It wasn't a recommendation the group made lightly. PCI's Paparella and Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann go way back.

"We've worked with him since the first medical marijuana initiative in 1996," says Nadelmann. "I've been involved in 30 or 40 ballot measures, and Angelo was probably involved in a third of those campaigns, maybe more."

The failure in Missouri was out of character for PCI, says Nadelmann. For now, he can't say how Drug Policy Alliance will spread its contributions in the 2018 election, but he believes that Missouri is on the right track.

"Missouri is ready," Nadelman says. "The public opinion is there. If you can put more or less the same initiative on the ballot, do it. I'll try my best to help you guys, but folks in Missouri have to step up."

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