Jason Mercier — Heavy hitters line up against I-517

One of the ballot measures voters will decide this year is I-517: Concerning initiative and referendum measures. The proposal is an initiative to the Legislature but lawmakers did not approve it meaning it will be placed before voters to pass final judgement.

According to the ballot title for I-517:

“This measure would set penalties for interfering with or retaliating against signature-gatherers and petition-signers; require that all measures receiving sufficient signatures appear on the ballot; and extend time for gathering initiative petition signatures.”

While protecting those who gather signatures from harassment and extending the deadline period for signature collection are not controversial (though the 25ft buffer around signature gathers may cause logistical problems), one section of I-517 is causing serious concerns about the balancing between the right to gather signatures and private property rights.

From Section 2 of I-517:

“Signature gathering and petition signing for an officially filed and processed initiative or referendum shall be a legally protected activity on public sidewalks and walkways and all sidewalks and walkways that carry pedestrian traffic, including those in front of the entrances and exits of any store, and inside or outside public buildings such as public sports stadiums, convention/exhibition centers, and public fairs.”

According to this Attorney General’s Opinion the requirement to allow signature gathering on private property is currently a gray area: “Large regional shopping mall” – yes; all commercial stores – no. It looks like I-517 would apply access to all stores regardless of size changing current case law.

I-517 doesn’t provide definitions for its terms leading to the following questions about Section 2:

• What is a “store”?

• Concerning the “inside or outside of public buildings” - does that mean signature gathers would need to be granted access to say the aisle ways on the way to seats at Centurylink and Safeco fields?

• Does “public sports stadiums” include all high school, college, minor league stadiums, etc.?

• Does “public buildings” include schools (K-12 and colleges) and things like agency buildings/capitol?

According to the No on I-517 campaign the answer to these questions are all “Yes” with the question on stores being answered: “Our opinion is that ALL retail stores are included in this definition.”

Perhaps because of these concerns several heavy hitters have signed on to the No on I-517 statement for the voters’ guide:

“Argument prepared by: Rob McKenna, former Washington State Attorney General; Brian Sonntag, former Washington State Auditor; Jan Gee, Washington Food Industry Association (independent/family-owned grocers); Frank Ordway, League of Education Voters; Andrew Villeneuve; activist and founder of the Northwest Progressive Institute.”

In addition, the No on I-517 campaign says: “Join former Secretaries of State Ralph Munro and Sam Reed in voting no on I-517.”

I am waiting to hear from the Yes on I-517 campaign for its answers to the above questions. Scouring the RCWs the only definition for these terms I was able to find concerned what a “public building” is (RCW 74.18.200 (6)):

“’Public building’ means any building and immediately adjacent outdoor space associated therewith, such as a patio or entryway, which is: (a) Owned by the state of Washington or any political subdivision thereof or any space leased by the state of Washington or any political subdivision thereof in any privately-owned building; and (b) dedicated to the administrative functions of the state or any political subdivision. However, this term shall not include property under the jurisdiction and control of a local board of education without the consent of such board.”

I will continue to research the answer to these questions and the impact of Section 2 and will release my full analysis of I-517 later this summer.

Though the people’s right of initiative and referendum should be robustly protected signature gathering shouldn’t infringe on private property rights for those businesses that don’t want to engage in a given political debate. The answer to whether I-517 does this will likely determine its fate at the ballot.

Jason Mercier is a director at the Center for Government Reform, Washington Policy Center in the Tri-Cities office.