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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bill would extend signature gathering time on initiatives

OLYMPIA – As state law enforcement officials began investigating more than 8,000 allegedly forged signatures for a pair of ballot measures, a legislative panel looked at changes to the initiative process – the century-old avenue for grass-roots democracy.

One suggestion the Senate Governmental Operations Committee aired out Thursday: Give initiative campaigns more time to circulate petitions.

“If we give citizens more time to get involved, you wouldn’t need paid signature gatherers,” said state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

Depending on when they file an initiative, Washington campaigns have, at most, six months to collect the signatures needed for a statewide ballot measure. Benton wants to give them two years. Tim Eyman, the state’s most prolific initiative sponsor, has I-517 headed for the November ballot that includes a section that would give campaigns a year.

But Steve Zemke, of Seattle, who has been involved in many past petition drives, told the committee extra time isn’t really necessary. Most signatures are usually collected in the last month or so, regardless of the time limit, because people respond to the urgency of a deadline, he said.

“I don’t think in this state we have a problem with getting something on the ballot,” Zemke said.

In recent years, initiatives have qualified for the ballot in less than a month by spending more than $1 million for signature gatherers. Critics say that undermines the original intent of public-sponsored laws, but courts have ruled states can’t outlaw the practice. Neither Benton’s bill nor Eyman’s initiative have any restrictions on paid signature-gathering.

Three paid signature-gatherers are suspected of forging more than 8,000 names on two initiatives that qualified last month for the November ballot. Secretary of State Kim Wyman this week called it “the worst case of initiative fraud anyone can remember” and turned the petition sheets over to the Washington State Patrol for investigation.

Wyman’s office said 3,644 of those signatures were turned in for Eyman’s I-517 and 4,483 were turned in for I-522, which would require the labeling of genetically modified food products. Both campaigns had more than enough valid signatures to qualify the ballot without the forgeries.

“I’m happy these guys got caught,” Eyman said Thursday. “We don’t want to pay for bad signatures.”

Technically, each forged signature could be charged as a separate felony with a penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.