JUNEAU When Alaskans last November narrowly approved a constitutional amendment changing the state's initiative process, opponents of the measure shook their heads and lamented that democracy would be that much further out of reach.
To the sponsors who pushed the proposition through, the changes meant an end to the practice of petitioning in a few populated areas of the state and ignoring the rural areas.
But opponents say the new requirements make it more difficult to get a citizen's initiative on the ballot: A higher percentage of signatures are needed from more state House districts.
And now initiative sponsors are scrambling for new ways to gather the 31,451 signatures in time to put their issues on the 2006 ballot.
Seven initiatives have been proposed since the process was changed and two of them have reached the signature-gathering stage.
Ray Metcalfe, a sponsor of an initiative to change Alaska's oil taxation regime, says his group still can collect most of the signatures it needs in the state's most populated cities and boroughs, but it will probably take better planning than in the past.
Prior to the constitutional change, petitioners had to collect signatures equal to 10 percent of those who voted in the most recent statewide election, with at least one signature from 27 of the 40 state House districts.
Petitioners now must meet the 10 percent requirement by collecting signatures from 30 of the 40 House districts. And the petitions for each district must have signatures equaling at least 7 percent of those who voted in that district in the most recent general election.
The number of voters who participated in the last election vary greatly from district to district, however, with the largest threshold requiring 749 signatures and the smallest requiring 318.
Metcalfe said petitioners still can collect signatures from rural residents at big-box and wholesale stores in Anchorage, where many from the bush stock up on supplies. But petitioners now must keep track of where the signatures are coming from and fill in the gaps later, Metcalfe said.
''If we need a few more from Homer, then we run down to Homer,'' he said.
Metcalfe, chairman of the Alaska Republican Moderate Party, said he also is taking a new approach to distributing signature books that could land him in court.
He has made the books for his initiative available for printing on the party's Web site, a strategy that has never been tried before, according to Tom Godkin of the Division of Elections. The move would allow anyone to print a signature book and get involved in the campaign, Metcalfe said.
''If the intent of the constitutional amendment was to bring about greater participation from the voters, then the Division of Elections and Legislature should be behind this concept,'' he said.
Godkin said he was told by the state Department of Law that this new method could make the signatures invalid. ''It opens the door to have different language added or manipulated in the petition booklets that would invalidate the booklets,'' Godkin said.
Metcalfe said he does not plan to rely on signatures from the Internet-printed booklets to get the proposal certified and placed on the ballot. But he said he might sue the state if they are rejected.
Another initiative in the signature gathering stage aims to shorten the length of legislative sessions from 121 to 90 days.
The sponsors, Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, and Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, have hired Hackney & Hackney Communications in Anchorage for about $2,000 a month to organize the signature-gathering and communications effort.
Hackney & Hackney has set up a Web site inviting residents contact the sponsors to sign the petition or be sent a booklet for distribution.
Co-owner Art Hackney said his group is maintaining a ''campaign-like'' focus on gathering the signatures by early January, the deadline for putting the proposal before the Legislature and getting the initiative on the 2006 ballot. He said the group is keeping a database of signatures gathered, so it can verify their validity.
''It's not something that you get by on a wing and a prayer,'' he said.
He said the new constitutional requirements appropriately ensure that residents from rural and urban parts of the state back a proposal before it goes to a public vote.
Like Metcalfe, Hackney said many of the rural signatures still can be collected in Anchorage and other urban centers. He said he is working with one petitioner in King Salmon to collect a few signatures still needed for District 37 that were not collected in Anchorage and other areas.
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