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A split decision on two petition bills

Post by Cheryl Tucker on Feb. 21, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
February 19, 2010 5:23 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

Two bills still alive in the Legislature take on the state’s initiative/referendum petition-gathering process. Lawmakers should pass one and do some major surgery on the other.

The one that makes sense is Senate Bill 6754, which would clarify that the names and addresses of people signing initiative or referendum petitions are public records and may be released as part of a public records request.

That information has long been available. But it’s an issue now because of the legal challenge surrounding Referendum 71 petitions in 2009 aimed at overturning the state’s “everything but marriage” domestic partner law. R-71 sponsors claimed release of petition signers’ names would open them up to harassment.

The case is currently in the U.S. Supreme Court, which conceivably could render moot anything the Legislature might do. But the bill deserves passage to clarify state law in the event the court decides against the R-71 petition sponsors or rules narrowly – such as requiring that petitioners show a likelihood of harm or harassment if their names were to be made public.

When citizens lend their names to initiative and referendum petitions, they are – in effect – part of the lawmaking process. It is in the public interest to know who is taking part in the process and if they are even eligible to do so. Public scrutiny of who signs petitions provides an independent backup of government officials’ verification.

The bill that needs more work is Senate Bill 6449, which could be subtitled “Let’s stick it to Tim Eyman.” Among its provisions: It would require paid signature gatherers and those who employ them to register with the state, be photographed and undergo training. Volunteer signature gatherers would not be affected.

This legislation seems targeted at making it harder to get signatures on petitions. For instance, signature gatherers would have to register separately for each ballot measure they are collecting signatures for. If the goal really is to prevent fraud, one registration should be sufficient. And if training is so important, why is it not important for volunteers?

In the House, state Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, proposes dumping the more egregious aspects of the bill – including the training requirement and separate registration for each ballot measure. Paid signature gatherers would only have to register once a year. Those changes would make the bill more acceptable, and we encourage House lawmakers to find a workable compromise on this legislation.

A provision that survives in Hunt’s version requiring signature gatherers to sign the petitions they turn in has become more controversial than it should be. That requirement – which 19 other states have, including Idaho, Oregon and California – is reasonable. If phony names are discovered, the secretary of state’s office needs some way to track down who submitted them.

We’re no great fans of lawmaking by initiative – especially when it involves paid signature gatherers. But it is a right of state citizens guaranteed in the state constitution, and lawmakers should not significantly interfere with it.

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