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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Editorial boards' arguments against initiative process reform make no sense

A few weeks ago, I commented on the local traditional media's continuing saintly treatment of Tim Eyman, observing:
Evergreen State media outlets, with the possible exception of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, have shown no indication they're going to end their sponsorship of Tim Eyman's free ride anytime soon.
And indeed, the free ride has continued. Several Washington newspapers have editorialized against reforming the initiative process using Eyman's arguments, urging the Legislature not to pass bills to ban paying petitioners by the hour, modify the outdated filing fee, require petitioners to identify themselves paid or volunteer, or require petitioners to provide a written affirmation that they collected the signatures on each petition they circulated.

The Seattle Times was first to chime in earlier this week:
The ostensible reason is that piece-rate payment increases the incentive to submit false signatures. But it is not an issue. The system filters out false signatures.
How can the Times claim that fraud "is not an issue" when there have been well documented cases of signature forgery and cheating in other states? Because we haven't bothered to do any investigation, we can just assume "the system filters out false signatures"?

What system? What is the Times talking about? Surely they don't mean we should trust the for profit companies that bring in out of state workers to pester citizens for their signature?

The editorial hilariously goes on to quote Michael Arno of California, an out of state consultant who rakes in big bucks from his political businesses. Arno is a shadowy figure whose subcontractors have been accused of voter registration fraud in 2004 in Florida - while Arno worked on behalf of the Republican National Committee to register voters on Florida campuses.

Arno petitioners were also accused in 2005 of collecting signatures on petition relating to legislation affecting alcoholic beverages and then asking signers to sign a "backup" petition, which turned out to be an anti-gay marriage petition that Arno had been hired to get on the Massachusetts ballot.

An Oregon blogger notes that Arno's California operations are quite lucrative:
In California alone, they'd pocketed a cool $3.78 million dollars as one of the two subcontractors for Arnold Schwarzenegger's "back door the legislature" ballot initiatives, run by a shadowy group of Schwarzenegger cronies and operatives calling itself Citizens to Save California.
There's way more on Arno I could mention here, but the bottom line is, he and his business stand to benefit if this cottage industry remains unregulated.

Of course Arno is going to claim that paying by the hour drives up the cost of qualifying ballot measures. That's a strategy that's being employed by the right wing across the country. (Tim Eyman and his pals from Citizen Solutions are saying the same thing). Whoever wrote this editorial had no problem taking Arno's comments at face value without bothering to check them for accuracy.

Times owner Frank Blethen was himself involved in a right wing initiative campaign last year (I-920, repealing the estate tax) and the paper's position is certainly no surprise. But the poor justification of it is.

People like Arno and Eyman don't hesitate to just make stuff up. They display an ignorance of the facts and they distort or manipulate figures to make their point.

I'll give you an example. At last week's hearing, Tim Eyman was called to testify on SB 5181, which would require signature gatherers to wear identification. Eyman's testimony consisted of him shouting that the legislation was blatantly unconstitutional and illegal, and already explicitly rejected by the United States Supreme Court. (He was referring to a related Colorado law that the Court ruled on in recent years).

When I testified (I followed Eyman) I quoted from the Court's Buckley decision and noted it only struck down the requirement that petitioners wear name tags. The Court did not say that requiring petitioners to identify themselves as paid or volunteer was unconstitutional at all. Since SB 5181 does not require name tags, it doesn't run afoul of the Court's decision.

After the hearing was over the committee staff thanked me for my testimony. They were annoyed that Eyman completely distorted the case and made them look as if they hadn't researched the constitutionality of the proposal (staff usually brief lawmakers on such details before a public hearing). And indeed, court opinions can be very complicated and not clear cut at all.

This morning, The Olympian published an equally shoddy editorial which, one by one, rejected most of the reforms (except the one to increase the filing fee). Like the Times, the Olympian relied on "facts" from an individual who lacks credibility:
Initiative guru Tim Eyman said people paid to collect signatures always sign the back of the petition. This bill would affect the grassroots volunteers who collect signatures. Only about half of them flip the initiative over and sign the declaration. The bill, if passed, would nullify thousands of otherwise valid signatures, and that's why SB 5182 should be rejected by the Legislature.
That's what initiative "guru" Tim Eyman says, so it must be true - how ridiculous. Not only does The Olympian editorial board buy Eyman's nonsense - but it also glorifies him as a guru.

We've said this many times, but it keeps falling on deaf ears: Tim Eyman is NOT a guru...or a king...or a champion. Look up the dictionary definitions of each of those words. They do not accurately describe what Eyman is. None of them do.

And as for requiring signatures to affirm they collected the signatures on the's a sensible rule that other states already have. Maine requires its petitioners to appear before a notary and fill out an affidavit certifying they personally witnessed the inscription of each signature on the petition.

Maine also requires its petitioners to be registered voters and residents from within the state...a reform we would be wise to adopt here.

Relying on Eyman as a factual source just once was bad enough, but the writer of this editorial appallingly did it twice:
According to Eyman, a similar law in Oregon tripled the cost to qualify an initiative for the ballot. He said the average cost climbed from $149,000 to $437,000.
Yes, that's what he said. A memo to The Olympian: Please justify to us and more importantly your subscribers why you place so much trust in what Tim Eyman says - given that he has repeatedly lied to the public, the press, and even his own supporters.

And once again, we're back to the pathetic argument about the cost of a paid signature drive - something I dealt with in my testimony in support of House Bill 1087 and its companion Senate bill:
Opponents will claim HB 1087 would drive up the cost of qualifying an initiative or referendum for the ballot. That they are so concerned about the financial impact it might have on their campaign coffers is a clear signal that they are not representatives of some populist manifestation or grassroots cause.

A proposal that truly has popular support should be able to get enough signatures through a drive conducted mostly or completely by volunteers.

Volunteer drives are rare these days because most groups wanting to qualify an initiative or referendum find it much easier to raise money to pay for a signature drive than do the hard work to organize and mobilize volunteers - especially if they have access to a large back account and especially if their proposal is self serving.

These astroturfers want this cottage industry to remain unregulated. The free speech argument is a convenient cover they use to prop up or bolster their contentions. The cost of a signature drive is not a determinant which should factor into the Legislature’s deliberation over initiative process reform.
Finally, we have a question for The Olympian: what's really mean spirited? Requiring petitioners to identify themselves as volunteer or paid - something many people undoubtedly wonder but are afraid to ask - or illegally copying citizens' signatures onto other petitions (and similar dirty tricks)?

The initiative process has been corrupted and co-opted by special interests who are now manipulating it for their own benefit at the expense of the common good. It's time for the Legislature to end the abuse and reform it whether local right wing initiative peddlers and editorial writers like it or not.

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