Initiatives and referendums have an honorable history of more than 100 years in Washington state, offering voters one of the most direct methods of citizen lawmaking. It’s one of 24 states to allow such ballot measures.
As voters must choose to adopt or reject initiatives as presented on the ballot, they are not always the best avenue for lawmaking; the complexities of some issues are better handled in the Legislature where there is an opportunity to address potential problems and make improvements to legislation through debate and amendment by elected representatives.
Yet there’s little doubt that a compelling initiative or referendum can help to increase voter turnout in a particular year.
So the process — giving voters the opportunity to gather signatures for a proposed law in order to place it on the ballot for voters to adopt or reject as law — should be protected. But there remains a need to address concerns with the process, most recently the regulation of paid signature gatherers.
While state law has allowed campaigns to pay signature gatherers since 1994, there have been recent reports of aggressive signature gatherers, who are paid for each signature, harassing and pursuing people in front of supermarkets and retail stores.
It’s no surprise that most of those testifying in support of one bill this session, SB 5397, were representatives of the retail industry, concerned that some paid signature gatherers are driving off customers or putting shoppers in a bad mood.
Many voters will have their own stories where they have felt cornered by a petitioner.
The Senate bill is the survivor among three pieces of legislation that sought more regulation of signature gatherers and other aspects of the initiative process. The legislation, which has passed the Senate and is now under consideration by the House elections committee, seeks to improve public confidence in the initiative process by tightening the rules for paid signature gatherers and those that employ them. It would:
Require a ballot measure sponsor or campaign that employs signature gatherers to disclose to the state Public Disclosure Commission the names, addresses, phone numbers and email address of paid signature gatherers and a list of the measures for which they are collecting signatures.
Requires those employing signature gathers to keep on file the above information, as well as a recent photo, a copy of government-issued ID, documentation that the signature gatherer completed a training program that outlines state rules regarding petitions and signature gathering and confirmation that the signature gatherer has undergone a background check and has not been convicted of fraud, forgery, identity theft or a violation of election laws in the past five years. The information would be retained for two years and made available to the state as requested.
Not surprisingly, Mukilteo’s Tim Eyman, who has turned initiatives into a cottage industry, opposed this and the other bills, one of which would have increased the filing fee to $200 from the current $100, though it would have refunded $100 for initiatives that qualify for the ballot.
Eyman objected to what he believes are onerous hoops that ballot measure sponsors will have to jump through to collect enough signatures to qualify initiatives for the ballot. Eyman is backed in his concerns by the Institute for Justice Washington, a nonprofit public interest law firm that challenges laws it believes limit political speech. The institute criticized SB 5397 as imposing significant burdens on the First Amendment’s free speech rights, specifically in requiring background checks and training.
The concern for the First Amendment is appreciated, but state and federal lawmakers as well as the courts, have recognized the need for limited regulation regarding political speech. The proposed law makes no similar requirement of signature gatherers who are not paid.
And the information and records that would be provided to the Public Disclosure Commission and retained by those employing signature gatherers are very similar to the types of information that paid lobbyists are already expected to provide to the state. Paid lobbyists would seem to be a close cousin to paid signature gatherers.
Of the three pieces of legislation regarding initiatives this year, the surviving bill makes a reasonable request of those who employ signature gatherers — many of whom travel from state to state in a search for work — and should ensure that they know what Washington state law allows and what state voters expect when they are asked for their support.