State lawmakers are once again considering bills to put more controls on the system to collect voter signatures on initiatives.
Parts of the bill – raising the filing fee from $50 to $500, for example – make sense and, if passed, should stop the practice of filing frivolous initiatives. The fee hasn’t been increased since 1893.
The more onerous provisions of the proposed legislation, requiring paid signature collectors to register with the state, carry and produce photo identification, go too far. Lawmakers need to reconsider Senate Bills 5297 and House Bill 1668, which seem more aimed at perennial initiative sponsor Tim Eyman than they do about writing sound public policy.
For decades in this state, the initiative process was a grassroots effort where clubs, organizations, business groups or citizens, with the help of friends, family members and neighbors petitioned their government for change by drafting and circulating initiatives. In recent years, however, the initiative process has become a cottage industry. Today most initiatives are circulated by paid signature collectors. It’s not the grassroots process it once was. Those organizations with money can generally qualify their measure for the ballot.
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While buying your way onto the ballot may be objectionable, the courts have clearly said it’s not illegal because it’s part of every citizen’s First Amendment right to petition his or her government.
Lawmakers have introduced HB 1668 and SB 5297 in an attempt to put more controls over paid signature collectors and to have the initiative and referendum filing fees reflect more of the cost of processing them.
• Require signature-gathering businesses to register with the Secretary of State’s office.
• Require paid signature gatherers to register with the secretary of state for each state or local initiative, referendum, or recall petition.
• Subjects unregistered, paid signature gatherers and signature-gathering businesses to fines. Unregistered businesses, for example, would face of minimum fine of $10,000.
• Increases the filing fee for a proposed ballot measure from $5 to $500.
Let’s take the latter issue first, because it makes good sense.
Steve Breaux, a spokesman for the Washington Public Interest Research Group, notes that between 2000 and 2005 only 21 initiatives qualified for the ballot, but the state had to pay to process 326 initiatives that were filed. The secretary of state, code reviser’s office and attorney general all have to spend hours preparing each initiative for circulation to voters. That costs money, but the filing fee is a lowly $5.
That’s why this state gets multiple frivolous initiatives. The poster child was last year’s initiative to require that the state seal be changed to include a tapeworm dressed in a three-piece suit attached to the lower intestine of a taxpayer. A $500 filing fee should eliminate the frivolous initiatives and reduce the workload of state officials to process them.
For the serious initiative filers, the legislation dictates that those measures that qualify for the ballot get a $450 rebate on their $500 filing fee.
That, too, is reasonable.
The Legislature’s proposed restrictions on paid signature gatherers are a mixed bag.
To us, it makes sense to have the businesses circulating petitions within the state to be licensed. After all, other businesses are required to register with the state and post their license.
Where we have concerns is on the limits lawmakers seek to impose on paid signature collectors – not on volunteer collectors. That, in itself, seems discriminatory.
Requiring paid gatherers to be photographed and register with the state, according to William Maurer, executive director of the Institute for Justice, would place a special burden on paid signature gatherers who are simply exercising their First Amendment right of “core political speech” and would be declared unconstitutional by the courts.
That remains to be seen, but Maurer raises a legitimate concern.
If the goal of the proposed legislation is to crack down on signature fraud, we have to ask if that’s really a problem. We seldom agree with Eyman or his initiatives, but he makes a good point when he says in the last 12 years some 12.7 million signatures have been recorded and there’s been just one prosecution for signature fraud. That’s not a strong case to jeopardize the rights of citizens to petition their government.
Raising the filing fee for initiatives and referendums makes sense, but lawmakers must not trample the First Amendment rights of paid signature collectors.