Getting an initiative to the ballot is hard to do. Paid signature-gatherers have become the norm for qualifying in Washington state. And typically campaigns spent a lot of their cash in that first phase of the initiative process.
Yet, very few initiatives actually pass into law. And few even qualify for the ballot out of the dozens of initiatives or referendums filed with the Office of the Secretary of State.
Given the odds stacked any measure getting through, we think our Legislature should carefully respect the people’s right to legislate by initiative petition, which is enshrined in the state Constitution.
At the same time, many lawmakers have understandable impulses to regulate the process, which can seem messy. It’s fair to say the process has been corrupted — given that several decades ago initiatives were mostly grassroots affairs and initiatives today are almost exclusively the domain of well-off interests that raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and pay signature gatherers.
In the case of Tim Eyman, the state’s most famous initiative pitchman, initiatives are a cottage industry — a way to make a living whether a measure lands on the ballot or not.
But there are problems. Retailers testified this year that the ragtag staff that go collect signatures for a few dollars per name can be unruly or disruptive to their businesses.
Then there is the problem of using one initiative to pay for signature gathering of another and kicking back money from a signature firm to Eyman, which the state Attorney General is still investigating.
That leaves us asking how much Washington state legislators should regulate signature-gatherers and the firms that employ them. Signature-gathering is, after all, a form of lawmaking and a form of electoral politics, and it’s more than fair to subject their activities to sensible regulations, which in other states is done more rigorously than here.
Is is a no-brainer that signature gathering firms should report all of their income and keep careful records for expenditures that the state Public Disclosure Commission can easily check. This should include evidence for all individuals paid for services such as collecting signatures.
SB 5386 is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jamie Pedersen of Seattle and co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Mark Miloscia of Federal Way. It would subject initiatives to pre-election legal challenges, which the state Supreme Court has declined to allow many times. The court – with one exception involving a measure targeting Eyman – presumes measures are valid until after the votes are tallied (which is how legislative acts are treated).
SB 5386 also requires a 10-day public comment period on a measure’s proposed ballot language, which may not be worth the delays this causes for campaigns.
HB 1537, sponsored by Republican Rep. Larry Haler of the Tri-Cities and co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Larry Springer of Kirkland, requires paid-signature firms to get photo identification of each signature gatherer it pays as well as collect a current photo, prove the gatherer has taken a training program and was given a national background check. The bill further requires that these details are shared with the elections agency. .
SB 5397 shares some of those requirements but, unlike HB 1537, only requires a signature firm to collect and retain data on people it pays for two years and to make the information available to the state as needed.
Eyman, for all his bluster and inaccurate claims in the past, is right that these requirements – taken together – could act as a barrier that keeps initiatives from getting on the ballot.
And why require both an official state identification card and a current photo? Especially since Washington does not require picture ID for voting.
Beyond these criticisms, it makes sense for signature firms to know who they are hiring and be able to prove who they paid for services. It also makes sense to raise the filing fee for initiatives and referendums to $200, up from $100. A great many ballot measures are filed frivolously, and state agencies spend time at taxpayer expense messing about with these dead-on-arrival proposals.
There is a way to honor the initiative right enshrined by state voters in a constitutional amendment in 1912 as an electoral “safety valve” without killing it. This is a vital element of our state’s populist strain of politics.
At the same time, a whole lot of transparency is good – if not essential.