In Our View: Protect Right to Petition

House bill would use sledgehammer to solve initiative process woes that require scalpel

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In seeking the precarious balance between the rights of citizens to petition the government and the right of the public to avoid a nuisance, the choice is clear: Petitioning the government is a sacred prerogative. There is a reason the First Amendment to the United States Constitution includes free speech; there is a reason the Washington Constitution guarantees citizens the right to legislate "independent of the Legislature." The ability to petition the government must remain inviolate.

Washington's initiative system long has afforded the public the ability to legislate. If an idea is worthy enough to draw a minimum number of signatures, then the public will have the opportunity to vote on it. The process — which wouldn't be necessary if the Legislature mirrored the will of the people — gives the public a voice that is essential in a representative democracy. Yet a bill that has passed the state House of Representatives would help to mute that voice.

House Bill 2552, which is almost certain to die in the Senate, would require paid signature gatherers to register with the Secretary of State's office. They would have to take a training course as defined by the state, would have to carry a registration card when circulating petitions, and would be required to pass a background check proving they had not violated fraud or election laws within the past five years. Petition sponsors could be fined $500 for each unregistered signature gatherer, and petition sheets could be invalidated — throwing out valid signatures without the knowledge of those who signed.

In short, the bill would use a sledgehammer to solve problems that require a scalpel. Washington's initiative process might be in need of some tweaking, but House Bill 2552 would unfairly alter the process to the detriment of the people. It likely would make it more difficult and more expensive for petition sponsors to find signature gatherers, raising the cost of placing an item on the ballot. As The Columbian wrote editorially in 2008, when similar efforts were afoot to limit the initiative process: "We respect the initiative process as the people's right to petition their government. A few legislators do not share that respect and want to erect frivolous hoops through which signature gatherers would have to jump. We're more interested in democracy than gymnastics."

The genesis for House Bill 2552, which was proposed by Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, appears to be concerns from business owners, who in some cases say that signature gatherers have become more aggressive and have generated increasing complaints from customers. Jeff Phillips, president of Rosauers Supermarkets, said: "We're struggling with the balance of people's rights and my rights and obligations as a business owner."

As we mentioned, that balance can be precarious. Nobody wants to be bothered by a signature gatherer when they go to the grocery store, but that is a small price to pay for the right to petition the government and a small reminder that sometimes democracy is messy. In addition, there also should be some manner to address a system in which a large percentage of initiatives that receive approval from voters subsequently are deemed unconstitutional. So, yes, there are ways in which Washington's initiative process can be improved, but the bill passed by 71 members of the House does not qualify as an improvement.

The initiative process as a form of political expression is deeply rooted in Washington tradition, and House Bill 2552 would go a long way toward digging up those roots and destabilizing the process. We trust that the Senate will recognize that truth.