NPI hails Senate passage of bill to combat signature fraud and petitioner misconduct

Legislation & Testimony

Tonight, the Washington State Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass bipartisan legislation that will combat signature fraud and petitioner misconduct by bolstering our public disclosure laws. Senate Bill 5397, prime sponsored by Republican State Senator Judy Warnick (R-13th District) would require campaigns to notify the public when they hire a signature gathering company and require the company to keep up to date records on file about its workers for their protection as well as the public’s protection.

Northwest Progressive Institute founder and Executive Director Andrew Villeneuve thanked the Senate for its decisive vote in favor of ESSB 5397.

“Tonight, more than two-thirds of our senators joined forces to defend the integrity of our initiative process,” said Villeneuve. “Washingtonians want and deserve fair elections, and this bill will help us tackle problems like signature fraud and petitioner misconduct that have shaken people’s faith in our cherished instruments of direct democracy.”

In recent years, the Secretary of State has uncovered fraudulent signatures on a plethora of initiative and referendum petitions, including petitions for Initiatives 1433, 1464, 1491, 1501, 517, 522, and Referendum 74. In each case, the Secretary of State announced the discovery via news release and referred the case to the State Patrol for investigation.

Those investigations have all too frequently been impeded by a lack of information to go on, as The Herald’s Eric Stevick reported back in 2013:

Getting to the truth has been elusive.

Bob Calkins, a spokesman for the Washington State Patrol, said some investigations have run into dead-ends.

“Not only were the signatures fraudulent, but the identifying information about the signature gatherer was fraudulent and we were never able to run that down to an individual person,” he said. “So those other cases we were unable to take forward for prosecution.”

If Senate Bill 5397 had been law when the aforementioned incidences of fraud occurred, the State Patrol’s search for the culprits would have been greatly aided by the availability of accurate worker records from the petitioning firms that employed them.

Among the records the bill specifies that the companies must keep on file for their signature gatherers are full name, assumed names, a passport-style digital photograph, a telephone number, address, email address, and copy of government-issued ID.

Contrary to what Tim Eyman has claimed, the bill does not require individual signature gatherers to register with the state prior to circulating petitions.

However, companies in the business of paying signature gatherers to circulate petitions are required under the bill to conduct background checks on individuals before hiring them. Companies must also ensure their workers complete a training program that teaches them about the First Amendment rights of citizens they approach for signatures as well as private property rights. Furthermore, individuals who have been convicted of forgery may not be compensated for circulating petitions.

These provisions of the bill (found in Section 3) are aimed at combating petitioner misconduct — a problem that’s also on the rise.

“When Washingtonians walk into a grocery store to pick up ingredients for dinner, they shouldn’t have to fend off rude signature gatherers who get in their way and curse them out simply because they opted not to sign a petition,” said Villeneuve. “The freedom to petition for a redress of grievances is a sacred right. But it must be exercised responsibly. Voters have a right to decline to sign a petition — and everyone deserves to be treated with respect regardless of their position on a ballot issue.”

ESSB 5397 now heads to the House of Representatives for further consideration.

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