He treads over the lush grass in chunky white Filas. A blues sky hangs overhead as he approaches people sitting on benches and blankets or tossing footballs back and forth.
“I was wondering if I could talk to you for a minute,” Gavin Whyte says, oversized clipboard in hand carrying dozens of petitions to get medical marijuana on Nebraska’s ballot.
The 23-year-old, who’s mostly worked in Memorial Park over the last few weeks, is one of many around the state gathering signatures. For years, medical marijuana proponents have tried and failed to get bills passed in the Legislature. This year, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana opted toward a petition drive requiring signatures from 10% of the state’s population, and a larger share from 38 rural counties, to sign their support. Today’s the deadline for petitioners like Whyte to gather nearly 130,000 names, and it looks like they’ll get there.
Whyte’s will not be one of those names, however. Not because he doesn’t support the measure, which proponents say offers the only care for ailments like seizures and glaucoma.
It’s because Whyte’s not from Nebraska.
Whyte, born and raised in Jamaica before moving to Miami, Florida in his teens, is paid $11 for every signature he gets, he said.
In two days Whyte’s made as much as $600. Over the course of a few weeks it’s enough to come out ahead after paying for the gas to get here, as well as living expenses and a hotel room. Whyte only does this a few weeks at a time, but others go year round.
“If you’re built for it then yes, by all means,” he said. “If you have no family, no girl, it’s for you. But I just came out here to grind and go back home.”
And Whyte’s not the only one. He got the idea to make paid petitioning a main source of income from a friend who does the same thing and travels around the country.
Most states allow similar practices although rules vary along with payment by signature and hourly rates. It’s not easy work, though. Whyte said any moment he’s not sleeping is a moment to gather signatures.
“I’m working every day. Every time of day,” he said. “Because it’s like, you have one goal in mind while you’re here. I’m here to get signatures. So even if I’m going out out to eat I have my clipboard. If I grab a smoothie I’m like, ‘Hey, do you want to sign a petition?’”
Some people turn him away or get angry. Oppositional advertisements have aired since May 2019 while Gov. Pete Ricketts and Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson have been vocal opponents of the measure.
But a lot of people are happy to sign once they start talking. Some people even share tearful stories like one woman whose mother suffered from seizures. The only cure they found was marijuana, she said. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to do with the petition.
Whyte walked up to one guy outside of a church and asked him how he was doing.
“Not well,” the guy responded, opening up about his dissatisfaction with his life and weight. Whyte said he stood and talked with the guy for a half hour, giving advice on building his self esteem and steps he could take to eating better.
He likes this part of the job, just getting to know people. It’s made more challenging by the pandemic and the need to socially distance. But it’s still an exciting opportunity for someone who’s such a stranger in the state.
Before coming here, he’d only worked around Miami, getting signatures for a ballot initiative to help save money on their electric bills, he said. When he told people he was coming to Nebraska, they asked him why he’d want to come here. Truthfully, he didn’t know what to expect of the state, but thought it seemed like a good cause and job opportunity. But looking around Memorial Park, a green field space with lulling hills and shady trees not too far away, he says Omaha feels like a paradise.
“[Omahans] just kind of enjoy life. I like that,” he said. “I was born in Jamaica, it’s like that. It’s like island vibes. It’s a better vibe when it comes to people.”
But even when Whyte’s not in the park, he’s found people in Omaha to be genuinely caring and accepting. One night he was downtown and told a man about the petition and his experiences asking people to sign it. The man told him to come with him.
Over the course of the night, he led Whyte around stopping at places where Whyte would have the best shot at getting signatures.
Once Whyte’s got a stockpile of petitions, he gets them notarized and then submitted to get paid.
The moral grey area of the job isn’t lost on him.
“If there was no money involved no one would care as much. It’s crazy,” Whyte said. “Because no one wants to volunteer their life to something that’s not beneficial [to them]. We live in a society where you need money to do everything. Money is the way to get people to look at it. People want to know their getting paid for something.”
But he reconciles throwing himself into the cycle of politics and money by taking on causes he believes in. Whyte said the causes he believes in are the ones that uplift marginalized people or provide help to those running out of options.
“Morally I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “Because that’s going to shape that state. I don’t want to get petitions and change something I don’t agree with.”