This post was written by Aisia Davis, Nonprofit VOTE’s Administrative Assistant and a 2L student at New England Law | Boston.
Earlier this month, Washington voters rejected a proposal that would have increased the profitability of the signature gathering business by altering the state’s initiative process. Washington is one of 24 states which use an initiative or referendum process that offers citizens the right to make and remake laws, as well as check the decisions of the legislature. If citizens are dissatisfied with a particular law or feel that a new law is needed, they can forward an initiative and place it on the ballot.
Once a path for citizen democracy, ballot measures have increasingly become yet another way for well-funded interests to pursue their agenda. The “money equals ‘free’ speech” legal theory has prohibited states from limiting the special interest money behind these measures and has created an uneven playing field between issue supporters and opponents. What was once a volunteer driven process that required a high threshold of citizen support has turned into a system where the signatures required to qualify a measure are usually gathered by for-profit companies that contract with ballot measure sponsors.
I-517 proposed significant changes to Washington’s initiative and referendum process, including expanding the rights of paid and volunteer signature gatherers and making it illegal to interfere with an individual gathering signatures. Purporting to protect the First Amendment rights of citizens (or signature gathering firms), the initiative sought to permit signature collection on public sidewalks, store entrances and exits, sport stadiums, convention/exhibition centers, and public fairs. This would have greatly imposed upon the rights of business owners, nonprofits, and government alike to set guidelines about when and where signatures are collected. It would have also proved intrusive to the public as it expanded the types of areas and venues in which signatures could be collected. Lastly, the initiative would have increased the time allotted to collect signatures from 10 to 16 months, an expanded time frame that would also have helped signature-collection companies earn more money.