This is democracy on speed.
The sun sank hours ago. The only illumination comes from jumpy headlights, sulfurous street lamps and the occasional pre-July Fourth fireworks exploding on the horizon. Revealed in the glow are the shapes of tired working people who punched out late and need something at the grocery store. Bouncing among them like a pinball is Gwen Squirewell, friendly, perspiring, skin glistening from all that contradictory light in the humid shadows.
"Excuse me, ma'am, are you a registered voter?" she says, over and over.
She approaches three or four people per minute in this parking lot on Benning Road NE on Thursday night.
"Excuse me, sir . . . ma'am . . . sir . . . ma'am . . .?"
Her face beams even more engagingly when the stranger's wary reply is: "Uh . . . yes?"
Then she delivers her pitch.
"This is for the slot machines. We'll have slot machines . . . on New York Avenue. It will bring more jobs instead of all the money going up to Atlantic City."
That's usually enough to close the deal or terminate the encounter. People make up their minds quickly whether they want to sign a petition to put a gambling referendum on the District ballot in November. Advocates led by businessman Pedro Alfonso and former D.C. Council member John Ray propose 3,500 video lottery terminals -- akin to slots. A quarter of the estimated annual $765 million proceeds -- about $190 million -- would go to the District.
Keron Hopkins, a research administrator at George Washington University, shudders at the thought: "I don't believe it's going to add value to the city."
But Teo Harris, with tie loosened on his McDonald's manager uniform, asks where to sign: "We need more jobs in this community."
Indeed. Squirewell says she usually works as a telemarketer and salesperson, but her job was eliminated. For a few days, collecting signatures is her job. Signature collectors are being paid up to $3 per John Hancock.
Where does Harris sign? In Squirewell's scramble to hit the streets, she neglected to bring a clipboard. So Harris can support the petition right here, on this flattened pink box of fabric softener. He holds up the paper and angles it toward one of the parking lot lamps so he can see what he's doing.
In nearly two hours Squirewell harvests 81 signatures -- then she has to ferry them quickly to a Red Roof Inn in Chinatown, where the high-stakes score is being kept.
Walking your neighborhood and collecting signatures would seem a fitting and idyllic activity for Independence Day weekend.
And so it might be except for the crushing deadline: Gambling proponents have five days -- until 5 p.m. Tuesday -- to secure 17,599 valid signatures, or 5 percent of the registered voters.
The clock started ticking about 2:30 p.m. Thursday, when the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics issued the official copy of the petition. Then proponents had to walk the certified form to Kinko's, which cost another couple hours. (The usual six-month collection period was shrunk by opponents' court challenge and because gambling advocates approached the city only in the spring.)
They had 120 hours if they worked around the clock. But most quit about 11 p.m. If they worked until 11 p.m. Thursday, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, that's about 80 hours.
They would have to sign up 220 voters per hour to get 17,599 signatures. But to have a cushion for invalid signatures, Ray says their goal is 40,000 to 50,000 signatures. That's 500 to 625 signatures per hour.
Ray estimated that 250 to 350 petition circulators are working the streets to collect those signatures.
The effort has a frantic, mass-production feel. The grass-roots romance that neighborhood activists inject into petition drives has been drained and replaced by the cunning of professionals hired from California and Florida to direct the signature collection. They, in turn, are paying the $3 bounty. No one is volunteering to put slot machines on the ballot.
An attorney for the elections board warned petitioners that only D.C. residents can legally gather signatures. Yesterday morning, a reporter asked one young man holding petitions and approaching people at the Anacostia Metro station where he is from.
"Orlando, Florida," he answered.
When the reporter asked if he was breaking the residency requirement, the man walked away and refused to say more.
Ray insisted that circulators have provided proof of D.C. residency, while nonresident professionals may be giving directions. "They're not supposed to be circulating any petitions," he says.
He adds: "I think we have a good shot at making this."
"Excuse me, sir . . . ma'am . . . sir . . .?"
At the Anacostia Metro station, Augustine Cowan is signing people up at an even brisker clip than Gwen Squirewell in Northeast. He is a D.C. resident, an insurance salesman who joined the effort at the behest of a D.C. Council candidate he won't name. Eschewing the yellow "Sign Up!" T-shirts of some circulators, he's dressed in a dark suit.
His pitch is a little different from Squirewell's: "This is just to get the video lottery on the ballot. We have to get 20,000 signatures by Tuesday. Can you help me out?"
He adds that the District's share will go to education, prescription drugs for seniors and maybe even lowering taxes.
Opponents, if they were here, would dispute that. There's no guarantee of where the money would go. Opponents say the slots will bring crime. (In fact, right about then, opponents were in other neighborhoods monitoring petition circulators with video cameras. They filed a complaint yesterday alleging the use of nonresident circulators and false claims to tout the slots.)
Richard Nicholson, 45, an unemployed forklift driver, signs: "I'm a gambler. I don't want to go so far. . . . If I'm going to lose my money, I'd rather lose it here!"
Joseph King, a Metro custodian, doesn't sign: "Don't you think D.C. has got enough problems?"
Cowan rakes in about 150 signatures in three hours.
The tight deadline only adds to the challenge of a place that referendum specialists consider especially confounding territory. Since the early days of home rule three decades ago, the elections board has certified 68 initiative drives -- and fewer than a third collected enough valid signatures to get on the ballot.
"The actual mechanics of collecting signatures in Washington, D.C., is one of the most difficult in the country," says M. Dane Waters, chairman of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
The reason is the District's strange identity crisis. Many places where big crowds flock -- the Mall, downtown -- are swarming with tourists, Virginians and Marylanders. Those people are useless to a petition circulator: They're not registered D.C. voters.
Then there is the District's distribution requirement: Not only must you sign up 5 percent of the voters citywide, but you must have 5 percent of the voters in five of the eight wards.
"In D.C. you really have to run five separate petition drives," says Paul Jacob, former national director of U.S. Term Limits, who helped lead the effort to get term limits on the ballot in 1994. "Management-wise, that's a huge thing on top of a task that is already pretty management intensive."
Jacob's group collected 32,000 signatures in five days and got the initiative on the ballot.
Simply turning in the signatures is no guarantee. Also in 1994, advocates of riverboat gambling, paying up to $1.75 per signature, collected 45,000 signatures, nearly three times the number needed. So many of them were ruled invalid that the initiative failed.
"What's facing these gambling people is formidable," says Wayne Turner, who led the successful effort to get a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot in 1998.
The signatures roll in.
"I'm tired of going out of town to gamble," says Sedina Arrington, 38, a caterer from Anacostia. She calls to her friend who's about to go through the Metro turnstiles -- "Girl, come here, this is for a casino!" -- and her friend signs, too.
And then what? Advocates of medical marijuana and term limits cheered on Election Day when voters overwhelmingly approved their initiatives.
A few years later, the D.C. Council canceled term limits. And Congress snuffed out medical marijuana.