Stores should have say over signature gathering

Political rights are bumping heads with property rights at the entrance of your local supermarket.

With more than 30 initiatives to the people registered in Olympia, signature gatherers are busy plying their trade. And for most of them it’s a lucrative trade, with many reportedly netting $2 or more per signature collected.

Naturally, these folks want to set up shop in high-traffic areas. Safeway and Fred Meyer stores, however, don’t want them in front of their stores, potentially annoying or even driving away customers. The stores have sued for the right to have signature-gatherers removed.

It’s a right the stores should have. It’s their property, and if a store owner believes an activity on that property is interfering with his business, he should be able to put a stop to it.

It’s too bad things have gotten to this point. Until Washington’s ban on paid signature gathering was invalidated in 1988, the initiative process was a purely grassroots phenomenon that depended on volunteer effort.

Now it’s an industry. Firms exist for the sole purpose of gathering signatures. Bring them an initiative, they’ll work to get it on the ballot. People who are paid to get you go sign have an understandable incentive to be assertive, even aggressive. Once you’ve run into an obnoxious one, you may prefer to avoid the next one altogether.

That’s why Safeway and Fred Meyer don’t want them camped in front of their stores. The last thing they want is to see a ready customer chased away.

Case law is unclear on this issue, which makes things dicey for police who are called by a store manager to remove a signature gatherer. Police essentially must be aware of each store’s individual policy. A 1999 state Supreme Court decision allows grocery stores to bar signature gatherers, but only if they also bar all other forms of solicitation, including Girl Scout cookies sales and Salvation Army bell-ringers.

The stores want the ability to bar signature gatherers while still allowing community fund-raising efforts. If they don’t prevail, the losers will be groups like the Girl Scouts and Volunteers of America, which depends on store solicitations during the holidays for much of its annual income.

Signatures can be gathered on public property, where plenty of high-traffic areas exist. Sticking to such places might make the initiative business more challenging, but at least it won’t be unfairly interfering with anyone else’s business.

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