Over-aggressive signature gatherers give Washington’s initiative process a black eye, but a House-passed bill that would make identifying offenders easier applies too much ice.
House Bill 2552 would require all paid signature gatherers to register with the Office of the Secretary of State. They would have to provide names, temporary and permanent addresses, a telephone number, email address, a digital photograph and some form of photo identification.
They would have to take a training program and sign a statement saying they understand the law. And they must disclose what petitions they will be circulating.
They would receive a registration card with their picture they must show when asked.
The companies that hire them or the initiative sponsor would have to certify that a national background check had been done and that the applicant had not violated fraud or election laws within the last five years. They would have to accept liability for gatherer violations of the law. They could be fined $500 for each unregistered gatherer, or for a gatherer paid for signatures on one petition while at the same time collecting signatures on another petition without pay.
Got all that? Well, that’s not all.
Initiative impresario Tim Eyman is crying foul, and legitimately so, although this is a case of his own chickens coming home to roost.
A year ago, Eyman was peddling Initiative 517, which would have established a 25-foot anti-harassment buffer around gatherers, and expanded their access to public and private spaces. Property owners, notably grocers, pushed back, and I-517 failed.
Now they are going after gatherers they say harass their customers by making sure offenders and their employers can be identified, and held accountable. They say HB 2552 mirrors a 2002 Oregon law that has withstood constitutional challenges.
But Shankar Narayan, representing the American Civil Liberties Union before the House Government Operations & Elections Committee, rightly questioned why volunteer signature gatherers would not be held to the same standards as the paid. And why should valid signatures be discarded because the gatherer did not fill out and sign an identification form on the back of the petitions?
HB 2552, he said, endangers free speech and the right to petition the government.
Eyman argues that the extensive identification requirements will expose gatherers to intimidation when they are not on the job. And those willing to take the job despite the required disclosures will demand more money for their trouble, which will translate into more expensive initiative campaigns. Costs in Oregon have tripled, he says.
Eyman has been stung by the property owner backlash from I-517, and House votes in favor of HB 2552 from sympathetic Republicans. Senate Republicans are less likely to forget their traditional support for initiatives. The bill will die there.
If shoppers do not get some relief from surly signature gatherers, however, the property owners will be back. Training would be in the best interest of all concerned, as would a minimal amount of ID.
Unfortunately, civility cannot be legislated.