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Proposal would regulate petitions

OLYMPIA – It’s practically a winter ritual in Olympia: the political dance between state lawmakers and initiative pitchman Tim Eyman.

Some lawmakers, annoyed by Eyman’s broadsides and anti-tax measures, try to tighten the rules for initiatives. Eyman, at televised hearings, blasts back. The bills quietly die.

Lather, rinse, repeat. This year, however, the annual rite could be more than just shadowboxing. In the name of curbing identity theft and preventing fraud, a House committee has given the thumbs-up to a controversial bill regulating paid signature-gatherers. Lawmakers say it’s about accountability; Eyman says it will make initiatives harder and physically endanger signature-gatherers.

House Bill 2601 would require paid signature-gatherers to register with the state Public Disclosure Commission. They’d have to provide their name, home address and a photograph, as well as other information. They would have to carry proof of this registration with them.

Also, all signature gatherers – paid or not – would have to sign the petitions they turn in. The goal, backers say, is to make it easier to track down people who commit fraud, like copying names out of the phone book.

“Students in our schools are required to sign their work or they do not get credit for it,” state Rep. Sam Hunt, an Olympia Democrat and the proposal’s prime sponsor, said at a hearing on HB 2601 last month. “Requiring signature-gatherers to sign their homework – petitions – is the same. It adds accountability and responsibility to the process.”

As for registering and carrying a photo ID card, he said, that’s become standard in workplaces, travel, even for some credit cards.

“I don’t think we’re adding anything terribly burdensome,” he said.

State Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, is one of the co-sponsors.

Part of the concern, Hunt said, is that sex offenders or identity thieves could pose as signature gatherers and get names, home addresses, signatures and other personal information.

“I don’t think any of us wants to have a convicted sex offender out there at a supermarket or a mall or something gathering names and addresses of families as they sign the petition,” Hunt said.

However, authorities say they’ve never heard of that happening.

Among those backing the changes: local members of Service Employees International Union, the business group Washington Roundtable, and the state trial lawyers’ association.

“I’m sorry, there are some things we need to be a little careful of in today’s society,” said Michael Temple, of the trial lawyers’ group.

Eyman and his allies say the changes would imperil signature-gatherers and make it significantly harder to collect the roughly 225,000 valid signatures it takes to get a measure on the statewide ballot.

“There’s just something so twisted about this,” Eyman said. “You have to register with the government and get a license to exercise your civil rights?”

Already, he said, signature-gatherers are frequently harassed. People working on his measures, he said, have been spit on, yelled at and had their petitions snatched and stolen. Making their names and home addresses public information, Eyman said, makes it easy to harass people at home.

“It wouldn’t take much for the average person to say this ain’t worth a buck a signature,” he said. And since paid signature-gatherers have become the norm for nearly every recent initiative, he said, driving them out of existence threatens the initiative right itself.

He points to the case of Danielle Martin, a paid signature gatherer for the firm Citizen Solutions who in 2004 filed a sworn affidavit in King County Superior Court.

While at a Renton Wal-Mart, she said, she was confronted by three people who repeatedly boxed her into a corner with signs and shopping carts to keep her from talking to passersby. They shouted at her and shoppers, called her an identity thief and slapped a hand over the clipboard when a Latino man tried to sign.

Martin described one of the men who was following her around:

“He screamed at me and people who were interested in signing petitions or registering to vote. He yelled that I was responsible for firing librarians and firefighters and that all the initiatives were the same.

“He also stood so close to me I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. He would grit his teeth and flail his arms or hold his hands behind his back and then suddenly reach out in a manner that was threatening to me.”

Eyman said state officials have been unable to provide him with any verified cases of petition forgeries or fraud for the past eight years.

“It really is a solution in search of a problem,” said state Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, one of three Republicans who tried to kill the proposal in committee last week. Among the others: state Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, whose district covers most of northeastern Washington.

Proponents and opponents disagree about whether the proposal is even constitutional. Olympia lawyer Shawn Newman – an Eyman ally – says it’s not. He points to a 1993 case in which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down similar requirements.

Legislative researchers say states cannot require that signature gatherers be registered voters, nor can they be forced to wear identification. But some court decisions allow regulation of initiative processes to ensure that they’re fair and honest. And Hunt noted that a similar law was just upheld in Oregon.

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