Setting the record straight on HB 2552

Legislation & TestimonyRethinking and Reframing

Throughout the past week and a half, Tim Eyman has been sending out near-daily emails trashing House Bill 2552, the initiative process transparency and accountability bill that passed out of the Washington State House of Representatives on February 17th with a large bipartisan majority.

Eyman has been asking his supporters to write to all of the Republicans who voted for the bill and demand that they recant and reverse their position. Unfortunately, as usual, he has not been upfront with his supporters, or with the media and elected officials he claims to have carbon copied on his messages.

His denunciations of HB 2552 have been packed to the brim with misinformation and recycled talking points he’s used in previous years against completely different bills, leaving us to wonder whether he has actually read the text of HB 2552. We’d like to take this opportunity to set the record straight and explain why HB 2552 is a good bill that actually strengthens the integrity of the initiative, referendum, and recall process.

As its bill report makes clear, House Bill 2552 is backed by a broad coalition of organizations, including the Washington Food Industry Association and NPI, which helped organize the successful coalition that overwhelmingly defeated Tim Eyman’s I-517 last year. HB 2552 is also supported by Secretary of State Kim Wyman, Washington’s top elections official and the only Republican elected to statewide office.

The purpose of HB 2552 is to make the initiative process more transparent and the companies that have turned it into an underground industry more accountable.

The bill was inspired by similar legislation passed in Oregon that the Oregon Secretary of State’s office says has helped to increase public confidence in the initiative process and deter signature fraud, but it is not identical.

Eyman has made a number of claims over the past few days about HB 2552 that are simply not true. We’re going to run through a bunch of these and debunk them, because it’s important that everyone who is interested in this legislation understands what it really does and why it was introduced.

Myth: HB 2552 is “The Democrats’ most vile, onerous, unconstitutional anti-initiative bill in state history” (Eyman)

Reality: Tim Eyman has attacked pretty much every initiative reform bill introduced with the aim of bolstering transparency and accountability with colorful adjectives like vile and onerous. HB 2552 is actually a bipartisan bill modeled on legislation implemented in Oregon that has so far withstood legal scrutiny. It is prime sponsored by Democratic State Representative Chris Reykdal and cosponsored by two Republicans… Vincent Buys and Brandon Vick. It is supported by Republican Kim Wyman, the only Republican elected to statewide office by the voters in HB 2552. It passed the House with a vote of seventy-one to twenty-six on February 17th, 2014.

Myth: HB 2552 “will destroy volunteer signature gathering” (Eyman)

Reality: Wrong. HB 2552 won’t restrict or interfere with volunteer signature gathering, let alone destroy it. It requires individuals who are being paid to approach voters for their signature to register with the Secretary of State, much like paid lobbyists are required to register with the Public Disclosure Commission. Volunteers do not need to register. Eyman claims:

Under HB 2552, even fewer volunteers will collect signatures because each sheet must be individually filled out on the back and a huge amount of personal information must be handwritten on each sheet.  What’ll happen then?  Initiative campaigns will become even more reliant on paid petitioning.

This is nonsense. The “huge amount of personal information” from petitioners that’s required is just a name, street address, city, state, zip, signature, and the date of the signature. Existing state law requires about the same amount of information of any voter signing the petition… name, signature, address, city, and county of residence. Signing the signature declaration on the back of a petition is no more complicated or time-consuming than signing a petition itself.

And under the bill, the initiative’s sponsor is fined $500 for each sheet not filled out.  What will initiative sponsors do?  To avoid the fine, they will throw away and never submit all the petition sheets that are not filled out, meaning thousands of valid voter signatures will never be turned in and counted.  This will destroy volunteer signature collection, resulting in increased reliance on paid petitioners (the opposite of what we all want)

This is false. HB 2552 does not impose any fines on initiative sponsors for submitting petitions without a signed declaration. The bill does impose fines on initiative sponsors and signature gathering firms if they employ petitioners who do not register, and if petitioners circulate petitions for free in addition to being paid. We checked with the staff of the Government Operations & Elections Committee, and they confirmed Eyman is incorrect. Here’s the relevant language in the bill:

NEW SECTION. Sec 8. A fine of five hundred dollars shall be issued to the prime sponsor or sponsors of the initiative, referendum, or recall petition or the signature gathering business for each of its paid signature gatherers who are not registered under this section, and for each signature gatherer who violates subsection (6) of this section.

Subsection 6 says:

An individual registered under this section may not obtain  signatures on a petition or prospective petition for which the individual is being paid and, at the same time, obtain signatures on a petition or prospective petition for which the individual is not being paid.

Just to reiterate: If a signature gatherer – whether volunteer or paid – forgets to fill out and sign the declaration before turning in his or her sheet, there’s no penalty. The signatures are not disqualified, and there is no fine.

Tim Eyman is wrong when he says otherwise.

Myth: “HB 2552 makes it simple for opponents of initiatives to shut down any signature drive.  They’ll know exactly who to target and harass.” (Eyman)

Reality: Nonsense. The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances is a constitutionally guaranteed right, as is the right to speak out on any issue and freely express oneself. HB 2552 will not prevent signature drives from taking place, or help opponents of any particular initiative to “shut down” a signature drive. Proponents and opponents of initiatives will remain free to organize for and against initiatives under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Last year, during the debate over Tim Eyman’s I-517 (which the people of Washington resoundingly rejected), former Secretary of State Sam Reed noted that during his tenure, most of the complaints received by his office regarding signature gathering pertained to aggressive petitioners, who voters reported were being too pushy and intimidating.

HB 2552 seeks to address these complaints by requiring that paid signature gatherers undergo training before they hit the streets with their petition sheets.

Contrary to what Tim Eyman has said, HB 2552 was not written to make it easier for opponents of initiatives to track down petitioners and make trouble for them. The bill was actually amended in committee to exempt the identification that petitioners must submit from being made available to the public, at the urging of HB 2552’s proponents. Section 1(9):

NEW SECTION. Sec 9. The applicant’s driver license, state identification card, or other photo identification required under subsection (1)(d) of this section is exempt from public inspection or copying.

Myth: “HB 2552 will radically decrease the number of citizens willing to participate in the initiative process by imposing massive burdens. And to accomplish what? Burdening everyone to find the handful who are already being caught under the current system!”

Reality: HB 2552 is a bill designed to strengthen the integrity of the initiative process. It requires individuals who are being paid to lobby voters in their capacity as citizen lawmakers to register with the Secretary of State, just as lobbyists who are being paid to lobby our elected representatives must register with the Public Disclosure Commission. There is nothing sinister or vile about HB 2552. Paid petitioners are required to register in Oregon, and it hasn’t stopped or diminished participation in the initiative process there.

Eyman fails to admit that many of the people who set up shop outside of entrances and exits to supermarkets, stadiums, and fairs are not necessarily citizens or even residents of Washington. Signature gathering firms often bring in workers from out-of-state who are unfamiliar with Washington’s politics or people to collect signatures. HB 2552 requires these firms and the petitioners who work for them to register and undergo training and background checks. Volunteer signature gatherers who simply wish to exercise their First Amendment rights are completely exempt from the registration requirements.

In his tirades against HB 2552, Eyman has repeatedly tried to minimize the problem of signature fraud, even referring to fraudulent signatures as “bad sigs”.

This is misleading; when the Secretary of State processes petitions from a signature drive, they always find “bad” signatures. Some signatures are duplicates; others are invalid because the individual who signed is not a registered voter, or the signature doesn’t match what the Secretary of State has on file. A signature can be bad and not be fraudulent.

The Secretary of State does not check every signature on every petition at the end of a signature drive. To save time and money, the SoS conducts what are known as random sample checks, where a small but statistically valid sample of signatures are subjected to examination and verification. During the random sample checks for I-517 and I-522 last year, a large number of fraudulent signatures were discovered, and the Secretary of State forwarded the case on to the State Patrol for investigation.

Last year was the fourth straight year that fraudulent signatures were discovered in random sample checks. As The Herald of Everett later reported in a follow-up story, signature fraud has been a recurring problem:

Eight of 19 initiatives or referenda submitted for verification between July 2008 and January 2013 contained irregularities that were turned over to the State Patrol.

Over that span, 19 people have been investigated for petition forgery or fraud. Among those, two were convicted of felonies.

These are just the cases we know about. Since not all petitions are being checked, it is quite possible that there are instances of signature fraud going uncaught and unnoticed.

Finally, it’s important to be aware that a lot of thought went into HB 2552, and it contains different language than bills introduced in previous sessions.

Anyone reporting or commenting on HB 2552 should read the bill themselves and do their own analysis. Unfortunately, the News Tribune of Tacoma and the Spokesman-Review of Spokane failed to do that last Friday when they published editorials against HB 2552.

Both newspapers, which evidently relied on talking points supplied by Eyman, erroneously complained about valid signatures being discarded due to petitioner misconduct.

The News Tribune wrote:

After voters have signed petitions, the gatherers would have to sign them and fill out the back – by hand, on each copy. Without this laborious process, the sheets would be invalidated. In other words, citizens who thought they’d signed a petition would have their signatures thrown out without their knowledge.

Incorrect. HB 2552 does make the declaration on the back mandatory, but valid voter signatures are not thrown out if it isn’t signed by the petitioner.

The Spokesman-Review, meanwhile, wrote:

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?

Again, they wouldn’t be.

Just so this is absolutely clear, we’ll say it one more time: HB 2552 does not disqualify the signatures of voters who have signed a petition if the gatherer forgets to fill out the declaration.  Read the bill, and do your own analysis!

The text is available right here (PDF).

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