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SB 5375 would bring needed accountability to Washington’s signature gathering industry

Editor’s Note: The following are the remarks I prepared as the basis for my spoken testimony in favor of SB 5375. This bill was supposed to be heard by the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee today. I never got a chance to testify in favor of SB 5375 because committee chair Pam Roach refused to allow me and others (including a representative from the Secretary of State’s office) to speak. Read more about how the hearing turned into The Pam Roach Show

Good morning, Madam Chair and members of the committee:

For the record, my name is Andrew Villeneuve.  I am the executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, based out of Redmond. I’m pleased to be here today on behalf of our team to express our strong support for Senate Bill 5375. We’d like to offer our profound thanks to Marko Liias for sponsoring it.

We believe this bill does two very important things: it protects workers who gather signatures on petitions from unscrupulous employers looking to exploit their labor, and it protects the public by deterring signature fraud and harassment of citizens by untrained workers, which are growing, documented problems.

If this bill were an attack on the people’s right to make laws, as has been argued here this morning, we would not be supporting it.

The initiative, referendum, and recall are useful tools for bypassing a gridlocked Legislature, and they have been used for that purpose many times, such as when the voters created the Public Disclosure Commission in the 1970s.

We want to see the initiative process strengthened and returned to the people. It belongs to the citizens of Washington, not to out of state corporations.

Data compiled by the Secretary of State’s office shows that we have a growing signature fraud problem. Large batches of fraudulent signatures have been discovered on petitions year after year.

On August 16th, 2013, the Everett Herald ran a story on our growing signature fraud problem. The Herald’s Eric Stevick reported:

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.”

Over the past few months, our team has had several conversations with the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, which implemented major reforms to their initiative process several years ago. Oregon now requires paid petitioners to register and pass a background check. They also adopted a law to stop the abusive practice of ballot title shopping… repeatedly filing multiple iterations of a measure in attempt to get a good ballot title. These reforms have been very successful.

In fact, the Oregon Secretary of State’s office tells us that over the course of the last two cycles they’ve actually had an uptick in the number of grassroots style petitions.

There was, of course, some grumbling when Oregon put its new laws into effect, but that’s since dissipated. The freedom to petition remains alive and well in the Beaver State today. The public can have more confidence in Oregon’s process.

Washington has a strong tradition of open, transparent government. It’s why we require professional lobbyists to register with the state and disclose their dealings with lawmakers. People who are being paid to lobby Washingtonians in their capacities as citizen lawmakers should likewise be required to register with the state. To protect the right to freely and anonymously petition, this bill exempts petitioners’ personal information, including contact information, from public disclosure. It strikes the right balance between transparency and privacy.

Oregon’s experience shows us that subjecting the paid signature gathering industry to oversight and accountability results in a stronger initiative process with more grassroots activity. That’s exactly what we need here in Washington. This thoughtfully crafted bill is ready to become part of the Revised Code of Washington. We urge you to pass it out of committee with a “do pass” recommendation.

One Comment

  1. Stewart Miller
    Posted February 10th, 2015 at 11:36 AM | Permalink

    The fact that Tim Eyman doesn’t like it means it has merit!