There it is again, that First Amendment, poking its way again into our serene system of governance. You may recall that Wenatchee and its City Council not long ago were declared poster children among First Amendment right inhibitors for forbidding us to vote on our new red-light auto ticketing machinery. Tim Eyman said this and incidents like it gave him the supreme motivation for devising Initiative 517, on which we are voting now, which he says further enshrines and protects our basic rights.
You may remember from eighth-grade civics, it’s the First Amendment that has the list. These rights are so fundamental that everybody has them, automatically, by virtue of being a human being. These rights aren’t granted by the government. Governments grant privileges; rights come with you when you are born. It’s a hazy distinction between rights that shall not be abridged, and privileges granted a favored class, that cloud up Initiative 517. Remember, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, the press, and religion, and we talk about those all the time. Tucked in the back are two more — the right to peaceably assemble, and to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The state’s Constitution takes it farther. It says the “first power” reserved to the people is the initiative, to make, alter or repeal law, a process that begins by petitioning the government. We know this works, because we spend every October sorting through the latest initiative offerings. Not unlike the Legislature, much of what is offered as potential law is rubbish or a self-serving grab for favors. Sometimes, however, comes something interesting, bold, or good.
Some cities, too, grant citizens the right to legislate by initiative. Wenatchee is one. We know this system doesn’t work, because for the last century we have never actually voted on an initiative. Initiative No. 1, first ever, would have had us vote on the desirability of our profitable red-light cameras, but in 2011 the court shot it down before the proponents could even collect signatures. The City Council even wanted the court to forbid the annoying initiateers to collect signatures at all. Wisely, Superior Court Judge John Bridges would not go that far. You can collect signatures, as is your right, he said, just don’t file the initiative. It’s not legal. A local initiative can’t overturn an act of the Legislature. We would have naught but chaos if it could.
So, we get I-517, which would guarantee any local initiative with sufficient signatures be put to a vote, legal or not. The legalities can be sorted out post election. This would elevate local initiatives to a status similar to statewide initiatives, which do not have legality judged pre-vote. As the court said, that would infringe on important rights.
This is an issue worth considering. I’m not sure how much good it would do to vote on an initiative that surely will be blown to smithereens in court, but this is a republic where the public voice should at least interest our elected officials.
Why oppose Initiative 517? See the above reference to the conflict between rights and privileges. Initiative 517 would enshrine signature gatherers, give them protection you do not have, allow them to collect signatures, to ply their trade, in most public places and even at the entrance to “any store,” places where there are reasonable restrictions on equally hallowed rights. You can’t hold church at the entrance to any store, or hold a demonstration in the library foyer, but you may be granted the legal protection of collecting signatures there. Initiative 517 also doubles the time limit for collecting signatures, which may ease the initiative process when ease is not required.
Gathering signatures is a right. Initiative 517 grants it privilege, above and beyond the rights of citizens without clipboards. If only the interesting issue of local initiatives wasn’t buried under all that other stuff, maybe we could talk.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.