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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.