Effort under way to register signature gatherers

Staff writerFebruary 4, 2014 

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Nancy Jo Armstrong (left) and Nancy King, staff of the Washington Secretary of State's Elections Division office in Olympia, Wash., count petition sheets after New Alliance Washington turned in an alleged 355,000 signatures on petitions to recommend Initiative 502 to legalize marijuana, December 29, 2011.

PETER HALEY — The News Tribune

Paid signature gatherers could soon be required to register with the Secretary of State’s office in a push to better regulate those who collect signatures for initiatives and referendums.

Legislation proposed by Rep. Chris Reykdal, a Democrat from Tumwater, would require persons collecting signatures for referendums and initiatives to register with the office of the Secretary of State and complete a training program. House Bill 2552 would also require a signature gatherer to undergo a national criminal background check, ensuring that they have not been convicted of fraud or violated any election laws within the last five years.

In 2013, one signature collector submitted 2,371 signatures for Initiative 522, which dealt with labeling genetically modified food. Less than four percent of the signatures were valid when tested by the Secretary of State’s office. Reykdal said regulating and holding the signature collectors accountable makes sense for local businesses.

“This would clean up some recent problems we’ve had in the process,” Reykdal told the House Government Operations and Elections Committee Tuesday.

The legislation would assign each signature gatherer a registration number, which they would have to carry along with a photo, and provide at request. It would further require individuals to sign a declaration after petitioners have signed, asserting the signatures collected are legitimate.

Signature gatherers often solicit outside of supermarkets and retail stores. Some business owners say that the increased number of individuals has led to an increased number of confrontations among customers and collectors.

“Many signature gatherers are polite and ask permission to be on the property and follow the rules of the management,” said Jan Gee of the Washington Food Industry Association. “But there’s always a few who spoil the process for the whole.”

Not everyone agrees with regulating signature gatherers. Shankar Narayan of the ACLU Washington thinks the bill infringes on constitutional rights.

“It’s a long list of requirements,” Narayan said, “entire categories of people are excluded from participation in the process.”

The idea to make paid signature gatherers register has floated around the Capitol for years. The difference between past incarnations and House Bill 2552 is that this years legislation inflicts fines for petitions that don’t comply with the bill instead of an outright rejection of a petition, according to Katie Blinn of the Secretary of State’s office. An organization that hires a signature gatherer who doesn’t go through the training can be fined $500.

“The problem of forged signatures and fabricated names used to be an isolated incident, but now we’re finding it to be an annual event,” Blinn said.

Blinn said that with the exception of 2009, fraud-riddled petitions have been submitted every year, especially in 2012. Blinn said an online training program could be an option for signature gatherers, and that the office of the Secretary of State would list what would be included in the training.

In 2011, Tim Eyman helped strip similar legislation of the requirement to register signature gatherers with the Secretary of State’s office. Senate Bill 5297, the watered-down proposal, passed out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, but didn’t make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

Jeff Phillips, president of Rosauers Supermarkets, said that in Spokane, law enforcement officers are being called increasingly often over confrontations between signature gatherers and customers. He said complaints among customers are growing as well.

“We’re struggling with the balance of people’s rights and my rights and obligations as a business owner,” Phillips said. “It’s a good start in trying to address balance.”

House Bill 2552 has an executive hearing scheduled for Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. in the House Government Operations and Elections Committee. It must pass out of committee by Friday to be considered for a vote on the House floor.

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