Signature gathering has become profitable industry

When our state was formed, the powers of initiative and referendum were reserved for the people. The intention was to give the people a check on the Legislature: If lawmakers did something to inspire enough grassroots passion, citizens could gather signatures and put the issue on the ballot.

Central to this was the idea that the people of Washington could put an issue on the ballot if there was legitimate public outcry. The idea of interest groups hiring professional signature-­gathering firms to advance their agendas never crossed the minds of the framers of our state's constitution.

Fast forward 100 years and things are much different. Initiative campaigns spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on professional signature gatherers while legitimate grassroots efforts are a thing of the past.

Every year the scenario is the same: an interest group isn't happy with the Legislature, so they raise a ton of money and hire a firm to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures.

The firm turns around and hires professional signature gatherers, pays them up to $5 per signature, and bills the interest group for its services. It is a profitable industry that depends on professional signature gathers who travel from state to state.

While regulations for traditional political campaigns are strict, state law regulating signature gatherers is pretty much a free-for-all. Signature gatherers are required to sign the back of every petition, but even this measure was opposed by Tim Eyman and his organization.

Signature gatherers don't have to tell you if they are being paid. They don't have to tell you where they are from. They aren't even required to tell you the truth about the facts of the issue. But they are very good at filling pages with names, addresses and signatures.

In this scenario the temptation to forge names and addresses is acutely apparent. Copying down a few names out of the phone book easily translates into fatter paychecks at the end of the month.

This is why I have introduced legislation to ban paying signature gatherers on a per-signature basis. Rather, signature gatherers must be paid on an hourly or salary basis.

I want to stress that, regardless of what professional initiative-mongers say, this bill would not prohibit the use of paid signature gatherers. The signature gatherers can still be paid. They can still lie to you about where they are from. They can still misrepresent the initiative they're asking you to sign.

What the bill will do, though, is lessen the temptation to pad signature forms with extra signatures. Paying signature gatherers an hourly rate removes the monetary incentive to commit forgery.

Professional signature gatherers argue that changing how they are paid somehow affects the people's right to petition. They also claim that bad signatures are the result of bad handwriting or confusion. Yet they ignore the fact that each year, the secretary of state's office is disqualifying more and more signatures.

The need for common-sense regulations for paid signature-gathering efforts is evidenced every year. More than 40,000 bogus signatures were turned in for a single initiative last year. Something tells me there is more than poor penmanship going on here.

Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, represents the communities of Bainbridge, Keyport and Kingston. She is in her second term as state representative from the 23rd District.