Washington’s citizens hold precious their right of initiative and referendum. The state’s constitution gives it conspicuous protection, lest a jealous Legislature chew it away. In Washington the citizens have the ability to propose and enact legislation, even overturn an act of the Legislature. Truly, that is power to the people.
Right does not bestow privilege. The collectors of initiative signatures have a right to petition the government, they have a right to free speech, but that just makes them like everybody else. It does not make them a class of the anointed, separated by privilege. Exercising their right does not give them powers and protections beyond those of ordinary citizens. It does not give them the right to violate the rights of others. It does not make them a protected class.
But that is what Initiative 517 would do. It is an initiative written by the professional pushers of initiatives, for the professional pushers of initiatives, to make their livelihood easier to obtain, to penalize those who might obstruct them, to give themselves privilege beyond the ordinary citizen whose signature they lure.
Courts have ruled that collecting initiative signatures is a form of political speech and thus constitutionally protected. Initiative 517 goes a step beyond. It says collecting signatures, or signing “shall not” be “deterred or infringed upon.” Those who dare to do so could be found guilty of disorderly conduct, perhaps fined or jailed. The gathering of signatures would be a “legally protected activity” on sidewalks and walkways “including those in front of the entrances and exits of any store, and inside or outside public buildings such as public sports stadiums, convention/exhibition centers and public fairs.”
Imagine, pass I-517 and a store owner with distinct and protected property rights and a uniform set of rules could prohibit a charitable solicitor from setting up at his door, or a religious pamphleteer, or a political candidate seeking votes, but not a petition signature collector. The managers of a convention center, fairgrounds or stadium, can set rules for public conduct in their facilities, but signatures gatherers would be exempt, because Initiative 517 says they shall not be deterred. They have super rights.
Initiative 517 makes it a misdemeanor to “interfere” with signature gatherers or signers by “pushing, shoving, touching, spitting, throwing objects, yelling, screaming, being verbally abusive, blocking or intimidating, or other tumultuous conduct or maintaining an intimidating presence within 25 feet of any person gathering signatures …” It says law enforcement “must vigorously protect” signature gatherers from said intimidating presence, tumult, or yell. Assume if a signature gatherer yells they would not be subject to the same penalty.
Initiative 517 extends the time limits for signature collection, from 10 to 16 months, unnecessary if an initiative has popular support but advantageous if you are paid by the signature. Initiative 517 also has a clause directly related to Wenatchee’s experience. It requires any local initiative, regarding red-light cameras for instance, with sufficient signatures be sent to a vote. If the measure exceeded the power of initiative, as the court ruled in the Wenatchee red light case, it would not matter. Election first, legality later. Call the lawyers back.
This initiative might be more appealing if there was a problem qualifying initiatives for the ballot, but we seem to have plenty. There are protections for speech, and laws against harassment and intimidation that must be sufficient. A legal pedestal for signature gatherers is neither necessary nor egalitarian. Vote no on Initiative 517.
This is the opinion of The Wenatchee World and its Editorial Board: Publisher Rufus Woods, Editor Cal FitzSimmons and Editorial Page Editor Tracy Warner.