I-1639 petition flaw: can anyone fix it?

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman is in a dilemma over Initiative 1639.

If enacted by voters this fall, I-1639 would impose tougher background checks, firearms training requirements, and higher age limits for purchasers of assault rifles, among other provisions.

Certainly the proposal to put curbs on gun ownership to improve public safety should go to voters in our state. But that isn’t the problem.

What is a problem is that I-1639 petitions – signed by more than 360,000 voters and filed with the Office of Secretary of State for verification – look flawed.

Wyman says the law requires a readable copy of the initiative text on the back of petitions. But the I-1639 language was in a tiny, hard-to-read font, which leaves her “concerned” that a precedent is set if she ignores it.

The second-term Republican said the petitions also failed to clearly mark initiative language that would be new in state law if I-1639 passes. The standard is for initiatives to underline any new language and to run a line through any wording to be repealed.

Unfortunately the secretary of state is declining to take any action. Wyman says state law lets her reject petitions only in cases where too few signatures are collected, when a deadline for collecting and filing signatures is missed, or the front sides of petitions lack a voter’s oath.

Ultimately a judge should decide if any problem with I-1639’s petitions is big enough to bother with.

The I-1639 campaign says the petitions are compliant with “the letter of the law.” Spokeswoman Kristen Ellingboe says the campaign is confident voters knew what they were signing.

But the Second Amendment Foundation, a Bellevue-based gun-rights group, disagrees and filed a lawsuit late last month challenging the petitions. Foundation leader Alan Gottlieb says his group plans a second suit.

The state Supreme Court’s commissioner rejected SAF’s first suit, saying that only Wyman’s office had standing to bring a challenge.

Meanwhile, Wyman is waiting to see who files what. She doesn’t want to file her own lawsuit against I-1639 because she fears it may taint her agency’s reputation for political neutrality.

We applaud her for trying to keep partisanship out of her agency’s elections work. But Wyman is going to be criticized whichever path she takes - whether she sends I-1639 straight to the November ballot or holds it up for a court review.

Wyman should bite the bullet and go to court, if the Second Amendment Foundation or other groups can’t get a hearing.

It’s better to settle this than wait until after the campaign when a small legal technicality might reverse the result.

Though I-1639’s petition flaws do not look malicious, they raise enough questions that legislators should tighten the law in January. Voters need to know what they are signing. If the state’s petition-format rules are still valid in our online era, Wyman or another party needs authority to enforce them.

Courts shy away from taking action on initiative or referendums before voters weigh in. Judges prefer to wait and see if the initiative is enacted before digging into constitutional questions. That is how the courts handle lawsuits challenging legislative enactments.

But enforcing rules for initiatives can matter before an election. Late last month, the Supreme Court heard an appeal in a fight over Initiative 940, which deals with police use of force.

Thurston County Judge Christine Schaller ruled forcefully that the Legislature violated the Constitution when it voted in March to approve I-940 and - almost simultaneously - to repeal and replace the new law with a new version.

Left to stand, the legislation would have kept I-940 off the ballot. After finding flaws in the legislative process, Judge Schaller ordered that the original measure go to the November ballot.

The citizen initiative has been in the state Constitution for a century and serves as safety valve for our political system. Preserving the clean spirit of this gridlock-breaking right is not easy. Voters put it in the Constitution during an era when a grassroots campaign was not a euphemism for a group with a pile of money and a mailing list.

Today, the initiative process is manipulated like any other political process. Interest groups often sponsor measures they can’t pass in the Legislature. Special interests have tried to conceal the source of their large contributions to campaigns and third-party PACs.

Nearly all successful initiative and referendum campaigns pay signature-gatherers to help them qualify for the ballot.

The petition format dispute is a new wrinkle. But it should not be brushed off.

We urge voters to tell Kim Wyman that she needs to enforce the rules any way she can.