OLYMPIA – A bill that would have put teeth in a state law preventing harassment of initiative signature-gatherers died Tuesday in the state Senate when Democratic leaders on the Senate State Government and Elections Committee refused to allow a vote.
Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, the bill’s sponsor, calls it a clear demonstration of a legislative “attitude problem” toward a six-pack of initiatives presented to the Legislature this year that challenge key elements of majority Democrats’ agenda.
“Washington state should not tolerate harassment and intimidation of signature gatherers, and it shouldn’t matter what petitions they are carrying,” Wilson said.
Wilson introduced Senate Bill 5820 following a ‘decline to sign’ campaign last fall that went too far. The state Democratic Party and the American Civil Liberties Union were among organizations encouraging followers to call telephone hotlines whenever they saw signature gatherers at work. Callers were asked to report times and locations, and to provide a physical description of those who carried the petitions.
This organized hotline program came as signatures were being gathered for the Let’s Go Washington campaign, which delivered six initiatives to the Legislature challenging key elements of the agenda passed by legislative Democrats over the last several years. The initiatives would junk the state cap-and-trade program that has driven up gas prices, repeal major tax increases, ban further efforts to impose a state income tax, restore police pursuits, and give parents a say in school curriculums.
Efforts to disrupt the signature drive were widely reported, as political activists showed up at places where signatures were being gathered. Confrontations and shouting matches ensued, and in some cases police were called.
Signature gathering in Washington state is considered a protected form of political speech, affirmed by the state constitution, case law and state statutes. Washington makes it a gross misdemeanor to interfere with signature gathering “by threats, intimidation or any other corrupt means or practice.”
Wilson said the incidents demonstrated the need for a stronger law with a tighter definition. His bill established a 25-foot buffer zone around signature gathering activities. Critics claimed the proposal interfered with protesters’ free-speech rights, but Wilson noted that the bill merely required them to stand back and let people sign in peace. The bill was modeled after a longstanding state law establishing buffer zones around polling places, recently extended to ballot drop boxes.
Wilson’s bill died Tuesday when a scheduled vote on his bill was canceled. Tuesday was the last meeting before a Jan. 31 deadline for bills to advance from policy committees.
Wilson, the ranking Republican member on the State Government and Elections Committee, said he was saddened but not surprised.
“The good news is that this effort did not succeed,” Wilson said. “Organizers still managed to collect 2.6 million signatures, enough to place all six initiatives before this year’s Legislature. But we can only imagine how many signatures might have been gathered if not for this campaign to suppress the people’s political speech.”