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Initiative reform: First, show us the problem

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
February 16, 2011 4:54 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Any talk of regulating signature-gathering in the Legislature has to start with the First Amendment.

It guarantees the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Petitioning is one of the fundamentals of American liberty – right up there with freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The discussion should then move to the Washington Constitution, which guarantees the right of this state’s citizens to enact laws by initiative.

Once everyone’s clear that we’re talking about fundamental rights, under both the federal and state constitutions, then we can talk about the details.

Bills aimed at burdening the signature-gathering process have become a perennial crop in the Legislature. Time after time, Democrats frustrated by the success of conservative initiatives have attempted to make it harder for all initiatives to reach the ballot.

The usual point of attack is the individual signature-gatherer, the weakest link in the chain connecting a newly filed initiative to a place on the ballot.

Signature-gatherers must work in public places and are exposed to physical obstruction and intimidation. This is not a hypothetical threat; it happens.

A bill proposed by state Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, would require paid signature gatherers to register their addresses, photographs and full names with the secretary of state. Potentially, this would allow opponents of an initiative to take their quarrel right to the gatherer’s front door or place of employment. Whatever the intent, it would have a chilling effect on constitutionally protected activity.

The bill would also disqualify petitions that didn’t carry the gatherers’ identifying information. Requiring the information is a good idea – there should be a better paper trail for problematic petitions – but citizens who sign in good faith should not have their signatures thrown out.

Constitutional rights are not absolute; they can be hedged to protect other constitutional rights or the public welfare. But the reasons for any major restriction ought to be compelling.

In this case, the ostensible reason for burdening the petition process is signature fraud. The problem is, there have been very few documented instances of signature fraud in recent state history. The record is remarkably clean.

The supporters of Reykdal’s bill have resorted to claiming that the very lack of evidence is proof that fraud must be rife in Washington ­– because signature gatherers haven’t been registering with the state. The lack of justification for the bill thus becomes the justification for the bill. A neat trick.

Sorry, but unsubstantiated problems just don’t suffice to curtail a constitutional right. Before fixing the system, someone must prove that it’s broken.

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