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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

What has to be on initiative petitions, and what doesn’t

OLYMPIA – When someone hits you up for your name on an initiative petition, how much of it do you read before deciding whether to sign?

Some people probably read almost nothing, and sign just to get away from the signature gatherer, who can be pretty aggressive if being paid by the name. Others may read just the ballot title, or the first few lines or check out the signatures to see if there’s anyone they know.

Raise your hand if you study the sheet enough to see who the top donors to the initiative campaign are?

No you don’t. That’s a trick question. Initiative campaigns are not required to list their top donors on their petitions, although for a brief period over the last week, there was some discussion that they should.

It all started when Joseph Backholm of the Family Policy Institute called the state Public Disclosure Commission. Sponsors were getting ready to print petitions for I-1515, the proposed Student Privacy and Locker Room Safety Act which would ban rules that let people use public restrooms based on anything but biology and genetics. In other words, state or local laws couldn’t say transgender people can use the facilities based on their gender identity rather than the M or F on their birth certificate.

However one might feel about this issue, Backholm was trying to make sure everything was kosher on the petitions themselves. He asked PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson if the sheets must carry the names of the campaign’s five largest donors under the 2012 update to disclosure laws.

It wasn’t a question she’d been asked before, Anderson said later. The definition of political advertising in the law is pretty broad and could be interpreted to include the petitions, which are seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

“I thought, ‘hmm’” she said later. “I wondered if that was something that, when the law was changed, was considered by legislators. I kind of thought, ‘Why wouldn’t they?”

So she said yes, the petition sheet should include what’s generally referred to as the Top 5.

This sent shock waves through the initiative industry like a rupture in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. While not as big as Boeing, Weyerhaeuser or the wheat growers, these folks can be just as noisy. A series of phone calls among the PDC, signature gatherers, initiative sponsors and the Secretary of State’s office ensued. It culminated Friday with a request for an attorney general’s opinion from Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, who serves as guardian archangel of the initiative process from her spot as chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee. It is an urgent matter requiring immediate attention, she wrote. 

“There have been no hearings – legislative hearings for a bill or administrative hearings for a rule – so there has been no opportunity to hear from the House and Senate regarding the impact of such a change,” she wrote to Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “It also seems to me to be unfair for the PDC to make such a sudden unilateral policy change in the middle of an initiative cycle because signature campaigns are already in progress.”

By the end of the request, Roach was in high dudgeon: “The people’s right to initiative and their right to sign petitions they support needs to be zealously protected from such bureaucratic interference.”

Except that the PDC had not made a policy change, and no one’s right to sign petitions was under attack. The agency hadn’t amended its rules or even revised the advice to campaigns on its website. Anderson merely offered an opinion on the topic when asked.

The PDC has no authority to stop a ballot campaign or invalidate petitions, she said in a recent interview, and has never sanctioned a campaign for not having the Top 5 on its sheets. The commission never sees the petitions.

The agency that collects and verifies them is the Secretary of State’s elections division. That office only requires three things on a petition, spokesman Dave Ammons said: The ballot title, the text and the 20 lines for signatures.

Some past campaigns have had other things on their petition sheets. Perennial initiative entrepreneur Tim Eyman put “mug shots” of legislators who hadn’t voted the way he thought they ought on one of his recent super-majority for taxes proposals. That didn’t get them disqualified, although it could bolster Anderson’s opinion that the petitions themselves are political advertising.

The commission may decide to discuss the topic and try to determine the legislative intent for the definition of political advertising, Anderson said.

In the meantime, it would seem the initiative industry – the people who make money by sponsoring ballot measures or being paid to collect sigs – can stand down from DefCon 1. They could ramp up again if Ferguson to Roach’s request by saying petitions are in fact a form of campaign advertising and do need to list their Top 5 donors.

Even then, it wouldn’t be anything to worry about until next year, by which time Roach or another lawmaker could introduce a bill that says initiative petitions ain’t political ads, hold a hearing and push it to the floor vote to give legislators a chance to say what they mean.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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