In November the people of Washington will vote on Initiative 517. The measure would make several changes to state law concerning signature gathering for initiatives and referendums. Initiative 517 would increase the time period for gathering signatures, require that proposals that receive an adequate number of valid signatures proceed to the ballot, change the penalties for interfering with signature gathering, and increase the number of locations, both public and private, where signature gathering can occur.
After reviewing the text of I-517 and various legal cases relating to its provisions, here is the conclusion of our study analyzing the proposal:
The people’s right of initiative and referendum should be robustly protected, but signature gathering rules should not be expanded to infringe on the private property rights of business owners who do not want to engage in a given political debate. Based on the text of Initiative 517 and the lack of definition of important terms, such as “store” and “public building,” passage of the Initiative would likely lead to lengthy court battles to determine whether its provisions infringe on constitutional property rights.
In the meantime, property owners would be uncertain about whether they could legally prevent signature gatherers from approaching customers entering or leaving their place of business.
It is already against the law to interfere with the signature gathering process. If a problem continues to persist the solution would be greater enforcement of the existing law, rather than enacting an expanded law. It is unclear how adding new restrictions in law will lead to better enforcement of the current legal protections. The fact that lawmakers proposed SB 5499 (increasing time for signature gathering) and SB 5347 (initiatives with valid signatures proceeding to ballot), however, indicates lawmakers are aware of the concerns expressed by supporters of Initiative 517. These changes are relatively non-controversial and would likely be considered again by lawmakers if voters reject Initiative 517.