NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

Let’s bolster Washington’s public disclosure laws to combat abuse and signature fraud

Edi­tor’s Note: Today, the respec­tive State Gov­ern­ment Com­mit­tees of the Wash­ing­ton State House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate held hear­ings on bad­ly-need­ed leg­is­la­tion that would bring the activ­i­ties of our under­ground sig­na­ture gath­er­ing indus­try into the light by adding new report­ing and com­pli­ance require­ments to our pub­lic dis­clo­sure laws. Pas­sage of this leg­is­la­tion is one of NPI’s leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ties for 2018. The fol­low­ing is the unabridged ver­sion of NPI’s founder’s tes­ti­mo­ny in sup­port of both bills.

Mr. Chair and Mem­bers of the Com­mit­tee:

Greet­ings, and thank you for this oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak with you.

I’m pleased to be here today on behalf of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute in enthu­si­as­tic sup­port of Sen­ate Bill 5397 and House Bill 1537. Pas­sage of either of these near­ly iden­ti­cal bipar­ti­san bills would bring much need­ed account­abil­i­ty and trans­paren­cy to the paid sig­na­ture gath­er­ing indus­try in Wash­ing­ton State.

This leg­is­la­tion requires bal­lot mea­sure spon­sors to report to the Pub­lic Dis­clo­sure Com­mis­sion when they hire a firm to under­take a paid sig­na­ture dri­ve on their behalf, and requires sig­na­ture gath­er­ing firms to keep infor­ma­tion about who they are employ­ing on file in case it is need­ed for inves­ti­ga­tion of fraud or mis­con­duct.

Bills with sim­i­lar aims have been pro­posed many times over the past few years, and with each ses­sion, the lan­guage has been improved and refined. The pro­posed sub­sti­tute before you today — vet­ted by both the Sec­re­tary of State’s office as well as the Pub­lic Dis­clo­sure Com­mis­sion — is the best ver­sion yet.

As you know, we already require peo­ple who are paid to lob­by the Leg­is­la­ture to reg­is­ter and file reg­u­lar reports with the Pub­lic Dis­clo­sure Com­mis­sion. Peo­ple who are being paid to lob­by vot­ers to sup­port ini­tia­tives and ref­er­en­da should like­wise be sub­ject to our pub­lic dis­clo­sure laws. The lack of such require­ments can be thought of as an exemp­tion in cur­rent law that needs to be closed.

NPI has been research­ing the busi­ness prac­tices and behav­iors of the paid sig­na­ture gath­er­ing indus­try in Wash­ing­ton State — and beyond — for more than half a decade. What we’ve learned is that this is an indus­try that oper­ates with very lit­tle scruti­ny, over­sight, or respect for our work­er pro­tec­tion laws.

Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to us is how the com­pa­nies that dom­i­nate this indus­try exploit their work­ers. Sig­na­ture gath­er­ers are typ­i­cal­ly treat­ed like inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors and told they’re respon­si­ble for their own tax­es and employ­ment secu­ri­ty pay­ments, even though they are direct­ed and con­trolled like employ­ees.

Fur­ther­more, com­pen­sa­tion is almost always pro­vid­ed on a per-sig­na­ture basis, which cre­ates an incen­tive for fraud and bad behav­ior.

The bill’s state­ment that ini­tia­tive fraud is a grow­ing prob­lem is entire­ly accu­rate. The num­ber of instances of sig­na­ture fraud con­tin­ue to increase. For exam­ple:

  • On June 11th, 2011, the Sec­re­tary of State’s office announced that the sig­na­ture gath­er­ing com­pa­ny that had worked on SEIU’s Ini­tia­tive 1163 (PCI Con­sul­tants) had dis­cov­ered fraud­u­lent sig­na­tures on peti­tions cir­cu­lat­ed by some of its work­ers. The case was referred to the State Patrol.
  • On June 11th, 2012, the Sec­re­tary of State’s office announced that the staff of the Elec­tions Divi­sion had found fifty peti­tion sheets that were chock full of fraud­u­lent sig­na­tures. These peti­tions were sub­mit­ted as part of the Ref­er­en­dum 74 sig­na­ture dri­ve, which unsuc­cess­ful­ly attempt­ed to over­turn mar­riage equal­i­ty. The case was referred to the State Patrol.
  • On Feb­ru­ary 13th, 2013, the Sec­re­tary of State’s office announced that fraud­u­lent sig­na­tures had been dis­cov­ered on peti­tions cir­cu­lat­ed for Tim Eyman’s I‑517 as well as I‑522, con­cern­ing genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied food label­ing. The case was referred to the State Patrol.
  • On Feb­ru­ary 10th, 2017, the Sec­re­tary of State’s office announced that fraud­u­lent sig­na­tures had been dis­cov­ered on ini­tia­tive peti­tions cir­cu­lat­ed in sup­port of four dif­fer­ent mea­sures — I‑1433, I‑1464, I‑1491 and I‑1501 — which all qual­i­fied for the bal­lot via paid sig­na­ture dri­ves. The case was referred to the State Patrol.

We’ve clear­ly got a trou­bling pat­tern on our hands.

Keep in mind that these are just the instances of fraud that are being dis­cov­ered through the process of pro­cess­ing and imag­ing the peti­tions and con­duct­ing ran­dom sam­ple checks. The Sec­re­tary of State does not nor­mal­ly check each and every sig­na­ture sub­mit­ted as part of a peti­tion dri­ve.

So there could be more fraud lurk­ing on peti­tions that we don’t know about.

In our expe­ri­ence, the notion that paid peti­tion­ers have “every incen­tive in the world to be polite” (as Tim Eyman claimed in his tes­ti­mo­ny) is wrong. Since they are paid by the sig­na­ture, they have every incen­tive to be aggres­sive.

Mem­bers of our orga­ni­za­tion have been eye­wit­ness­es to abu­sive con­duct by peti­tion­ers repeat­ed­ly in the last few years… includ­ing cas­es where the police were called and peti­tion­ers tres­passed from the prop­er­ties where they were work­ing.

For exam­ple, in 2015, peti­tion­ers work­ing to col­lect sig­na­tures for Tim Eyman’s I‑1366 were ordered by police to leave a Kirk­land Trad­er Joe’s after cus­tomers report­ed that the peti­tion­ers were behav­ing very aggres­sive­ly and dis­re­spect­ful­ly towards shop­pers who were sim­ply try­ing to get their gro­ceries. One of the peti­tion­ers was curs­ing out peo­ple who declined to sign I‑1366.

Many Wash­ing­to­ni­ans have had expe­ri­ences like this. It is our belief that there would be few­er hos­tile encoun­ters between paid peti­tion­ers and vot­ers if the the peti­tion­ers were bet­ter trained. Appro­pri­ate­ly, Sec­tion 3(h) requires that com­pa­nies in the indus­try pro­vide train­ing to their work­ers before send­ing them out.

Specif­i­cal­ly, firms are required to have “doc­u­men­ta­tion that the sig­na­ture gath­er­er has com­plet­ed a train­ing pro­gram that includes the rights and respon­si­bil­i­ties of vot­ers, sig­na­ture gath­er­ers, pub­lic prop­er­ty own­ers, and pri­vate prop­er­ty own­ers in the ini­tia­tive and ref­er­en­dum process.”

Fur­ther­more: “The train­ing pro­gram must be avail­able in elec­tron­ic for­mat and easy to access for the sig­na­ture gath­er­er.”

Firms would also have to con­duct nation­al back­ground checks on prospec­tive work­ers to ver­i­fy they do not have forgery con­vic­tions on their records.

Imple­men­ta­tion of these reforms is long over­due, and will pro­tect Wash­ing­ton’s ini­tia­tive and ref­er­en­dum process from seri­ous abuse in the future.

The First Amend­ment to the Unit­ed States Con­sti­tu­tion pro­tects every­one’s right to speak freely and to peti­tion the gov­ern­ment for a redress of griev­ances. These bills have been thought­ful­ly craft­ed to ensure those rights are respect­ed. The peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton have a legit­i­mate and com­pelling inter­est in ensur­ing that our state’s elec­tions are free and fair. Vot­ers have a right to know who’s try­ing to influ­ence their vote, or secure their sig­na­ture for the pur­pos­es of set­ting up a vote.

More than a cen­tu­ry ago, not long after Wash­ing­to­ni­ans vot­ed to alter our state’s plan of gov­ern­ment to pro­vide for the ini­tia­tive and ref­er­en­dum, future Supreme Court Jus­tice Louis Bran­deis argued in a piece pub­lished in Harper’s Week­ly that sun­light is said to be the best of dis­in­fec­tants. That notion would become the basis for Wash­ing­ton’s pub­lic dis­clo­sure law, approved in 1976 by over 70% of vot­ers.

Ini­tia­tive 276’s dec­la­ra­tion of pol­i­cy mem­o­rably opens with the fol­low­ing two lines:

It is here­by declared by the sov­er­eign peo­ple to be the pub­lic pol­i­cy of the state of Wash­ing­ton:

1. That polit­i­cal cam­paign and lob­by­ing con­tri­bu­tions and expen­di­tures be ful­ly dis­closed to the pub­lic and that secre­cy is to be avoid­ed.

“Ful­ly dis­closed” means no excep­tions. It’s time to pass this leg­is­la­tion and update our pub­lic dis­clo­sure laws to pro­tect the pub­lic’s right to know.

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