Initiative process isn’t broken: Don’t ‘fix’ it

James Madison to Washington lawmakers: Please keep your mitts off the state’s petition process.

Some legislators are making yet another attempt to throttle the signature-gathering that lies at the core of Washingtonians’ right to mount initiatives and referendums. House Bill 2552, which cleared the House of Representatives last week, would entangle petitioners in a slew of new restrictions. The clear purpose is to make it harder for citizens to get a measure on the ballot.

Any effort to burden or complicate signature-gathering has constitutional implications. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and the right “to petition the government for redress of grievances.”

It doesn’t take a law degree to understand the issue. Petitioning the government is a form of political expression. The framers were thinking specifically of political expression when they put freedom of speech right at the top of the Bill of Rights. The idea was to keep the government from silencing critics and advocates of change.

The Washington Constitution goes further: It guarantees citizens the right to legislate “independent of the Legislature” by putting initiatives and referendums on the ballot and letting the people decide.

HB 2552 is designed to make it all harder.

On the pretext of preventing fraud – which has been a minimal problem in Washington – it would require petition gatherers to register with the state and undergo a government training program. The authors make a big deal of distinguishing “paid” from volunteer signature gatherers – a distinction the courts don’t make.

Gatherers would have to submit, among other things:

 • Digital photographs of themselves.

 • Home addresses, phone numbers and email addresses.

 • Copies of their drivers licenses or other ID.

 • A list of all initiatives, referendums or recalls they’ll be working for.

 • “Any other information” required by the secretary of state.

After voters have signed petitions, the gatherers would have to sign them and fill out the back – by hand, on each copy. Without this laborious process, the sheets would be invalidated. In other words, citizens who thought they’d signed a petition would have their signatures thrown out without their knowledge.

This bill is gratuitously insulting to a form of political expression deeply rooted in Washington’s constitutional tradition. It’s disappointing that 71 members of the House thought it was a great idea. We hope the Senate proves wiser.