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In Our View: Initiative 517 Goes Too Far

It would extend rights of initiative signature gatherers at expense of public

The Columbian
Published: October 10, 2013, 5:00pm

While the initiative process is vital to a thriving democracy, Initiative 517 would go too far in expanding protection for signature gatherers at the expense of other’s rights. We urge a “no” vote on this statewide ballot measure.

Billed as “Protect your right to vote on initiatives” and sponsored by Tim Eyman, I-517 includes some smart ideas but in the end is overreaching and unnecessary. Among the shortcomings of the measure:

• I-517 would expand the locations where signature gatherers could operate, including inside public spaces such as sports venues, convention centers or libraries. The last thing sports fans or concertgoers want at an event is to be bothered by a signature gatherer who is being paid by an initiative’s sponsor based upon how many names they add to their list.

In addition, the initiative says that signature gatherers are not to be “inhibited or restricted in any way” on “all sidewalks and walkways that carry pedestrian traffic, including those in front of the entrances and exits of any stores.” This would restrict the property rights of business owners, preventing them from placing reasonable limitations upon gatherers on their property. As it stands now, according to the secretary of state’s office, “Washington courts have explained that when initiative or referendum supporters collect signatures on private property, there might be limits so that the activity does not interfere with what other people are doing on the property.”

• The initiative specifies that signature gatherers are protected from opponents engaging in “pushing, shoving, touching, spitting, throwing objects, yelling, screaming, or being verbally abusive, or other tumultuous conduct, blocking or intimidating, or maintaining an intimidating presence within 25 feet.” Many of these actions already are prevented by other laws, and some of them could amount to assault. If an opponent throws an object at a signature gatherer, legal redress is available; petitioners don’t require more protection than anybody else. As for yelling or screaming, I-517 could criminalize protected First Amendment speech.

• I-517 would force initiatives that attract the required number of signatures to be placed on the ballot, whether they are geared toward the state or local level. While this sounds like a reasonable portion of the initiative, it is misleading. This caveat would force government entities to place a measure on the ballot if it receives enough signatures, even if the measure itself is apparently illegal (initiatives undergo a cursory legal review prior to being placed on the ballot). That fact could force local governments to place unnecessary initiatives on the ballot and then face expensive and protracted legal battles should the measure be passed by voters.

• I-517 would extend the length of time petition sponsors have to gather signatures from 10 months to 16 months. Given the fact that several initiatives typically make it onto the ballot each election cycle, this would appear to be an unnecessary extension. If a proposal has merit and significant public support, 10 months should be enough time to gather signatures.

The initiative process is an important one, and it already has legal protections that have been defined by the courts. Citizens must have the right and a reasonable ability to petition the government and place proposed laws on the ballot, and Washington’s current system has proven to be accessible and effective. I-517 goes too far in extending the rights of signature gatherers at the expense of the general public and business owners.