Think Before You Ink
In an era where initiatives and referenda are a big business, paid petitioners have become a common sight at shopping centers, mall entrances, ferry terminals, and community gathering places, especially in the months of May and June.
Chances are, if you’re a native Washingtonian or you’ve lived in the Evergreen State long enough, you’ve seen petitioners at work collecting signatures, and have been asked yourself to sign a petition — or maybe even several petitions at once.
Washington’s tradition of direct legislation dates back to the early 1900s, when the initiative and referendum were added to our Constitution through the Seventh Amendment. The initiative and referendum were conceived by progressive reformers of the era to bring Washington’s government closer to its people. Unfortunately, in more recent times, we have seen the initiative and referendum powers hijacked and used not as tools to improve people’s lives, but as weapons.
Twenty-first century progressives continue to use the initiative process as a tool to bypass legislative gridlock, but sadly, it is just as frequently used by the right wing to force votes on schemes purposely intended to roll back our civil liberties and wreck government. You can help ensure you’re not inadvertently serving the agenda of bad actors like Tim Eyman by following a simple and important rule when you’re approached by a petitioner hawking a petition: Think before you ink.
By law, all initiative and referendum petitions must contain a number and a ballot title. If you’re asked to sign a petition, tell the petitioner you need to study the measure first. Respond calmly to aggressive, in-your-face tactics. Disregard the sales pitch and pull out your smartphone, if you carry one. Initiate a search for the measure number and the first few words of the ballot title to obtain more information. Take a picture of the top part of the petition, which is typically used for editorializing, for future reference.
Just by taking a few moments to examine the petition, you should be able to ascertain whether the petition is for a progressive campaign or a right wing campaign. You can use our Field Guide to confirm whether or not the petition you’re examining is for a measure that would harm Washington’s communities.
If the petition is for a right wing initiative or referendum, refuse to sign. Politely rebuff the petitioner if they get pushy.
Be aware that many petitioners try to convince reluctant voters to affix their names and signatures with bogus claims like, Signing only means you want the people to have a chance to vote on this in November.
Don’t be fooled! When you sign a petition, you are taking a public position on a proposed law. The information you give to the petitioner, if the petition is ultimately submitted to elections officials, will become a public record that any interested citizen can request through our state’s sunshine/open government laws. Always decline to sign petitions circulated by right wing campaigns.
Advice from Norm Maleng
In 2004, the late Republican prosecutor Norm Maleng recorded a public service announcement to help educate voters about the importance of scrutinizing petitions before signing them. Click Play below to hear his thoughts on what to do when confronted by a signature gatherer, especially an aggressive one.
Be wary of tricks
Help educate voters around you by pointing out nefarious behavior when you see it. Some unscrupulous petitioners resort to trickery in order to make money.
One trick scummy petitioners employ is to tell voters they need to sign more than once for their signature to be valid. Usually, this is accomplished with petition boards laid right on top of each other. Don’t be scammed, and don’t let others get scammed.
When a petitioner asks a voter to sign more than once, what they’re trying to do is get the voter to sign multiple petitions. They may use one petition as the hook, or lure, and then try to con the unsuspecting voter into signing something totally different at the exact same time. If you see this happening, please document it to the best of your ability and report it to us so we can follow up.
How you can protect yourself from signature fraud and your community from right wing initiatives
Make it a habit to follow these simple steps before you sign any ballot petition:
- Read the front and back of every petition.
- Don’t let a petitioner rush you into signing something you don’t support.
- Be wary when petitioners carry more than two or three initiatives. That means they are paid per signature and that’s a high incentive for fraud.
- Don’t sign an initiative more than once.
- Don’t sign an initiative unless you are registered to vote at the moment you sign.
- If you sign, make sure and fill out your entire name and address on every initiative. That makes your signature more difficult to forge.
- Ignore the date of birth field if you see it on a petition. It’s not legally required for your signature to count.