Local Election

Here's why you're being asked to sign so many petitions in Washington state

Here's how Washington state's initiative process works

Washington was one of the first states to approve the initiative and referendum process, which allows citizen's an opportunity to make or remake laws. Initiatives can go directly to a vote of the people or to the state Legislature.
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Washington was one of the first states to approve the initiative and referendum process, which allows citizen's an opportunity to make or remake laws. Initiatives can go directly to a vote of the people or to the state Legislature.

They seem to be everywhere these days, those people circulating petitions on topics from firearms to food taxes.

"I'm guessing it's because the weather's been nice," said Erich Ebel, spokesman for the state Secretary of State's Office. "People aren't necessarily going to want to listen to your pitch when it's pouring down rain."

Petitioners have had since January to start gathering signatures, but it's crunch time as they face a July 6 deadline to get the consent of 259,622 registered voters to qualify their measures for the Washington state Nov. 6 general election.

So they hover at the entrances to public buildings and stores — anywhere people tend to congregate, looking for their next John Hancock.

"It gives me at least a small voice in our government," said Larry Walter Illman of Ferndale, in response to a social media inquiry.

"I love it, as long as I understand the initiative," said Cathy Thompson of Bellingham. "It is true democracy in action. An initiative is sometimes the only way the majority can influence change, if lawmakers are not swayed by public opinion, but rather high dollar contributors."

But the initiative process has grown into big business, despite its Progressive Era origins as a way for citizens to wrest power from corporations and corrupt politicians.

Many of the people you see gathering signatures are paid by the hour or by the signature — and they often make a pretty penny, according to a Los Angeles Times article.

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A voter signs a petition outside the Bellingham Public Library. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

In addition, the initiative process itself has become big business, according to a report by KUOW-FM on PCI Consultants Inc. of California, a company that hires temporary workers for initiative campaigns.

Conservative political activist Tim Eyman of Mukilteo has made a career of filing initiatives in the state of Washington. He was paid $112,000 for work on initiatives in 2012, according to The Seattle Times.

But Washington state residents don't need that kind of money to initiate a petition drive that could make a law or change one — such as making marijuana legal.

All it requires is a $5 fee, and it can be done online.

But those promoting an initiative are responsible for printing the petitions and for gathering signatures, Ebel said.

Several dozen initiatives have been filed so far in 2018, but only a few generally make the ballot, Ebel said.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty
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