Legislature must protect signature gatherers from harassment

OLYMPIA – Lawmakers need to expand protections for initiative campaigns, say Senate Republicans, following an effort to intimidate signature gatherers promoted by the Washington State Democratic Party and the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, filed a bill Friday that strengthens protections for signature gatherers who circulate petitions to qualify initiatives and referendums for the Washington ballot. Senate Bill 5820 is a priority for Senate Republicans, following a “decline to sign” campaign they say has gone too far.  

“This case ought to disturb anyone who believes voters should be able to decide things for themselves,” said Wilson, ranking Republican on the Senate State Government and Elections Committee. “It’s bad enough that one of our major political parties would back this nonsense. But what gets me is that this effort to squelch civil liberties would be promoted by a group that claims to support them, the American Civil Liberties Union.”

Though decline-to-sign campaigns are nothing new in Washington politics, Wilson and others say this one crosses the line. The effort concerns a series of six conservative-themed initiatives circulating this season.

To combat the petition drives, the state Democratic Party and the ACLU are urging their social media followers to call a hotline number to “report signature gatherers” wherever they see petitions being signed. Callers are asked to provide location, time of day, a description of the signature gatherer, and other relevant details.

Organized efforts to disrupt signature gathering have been widely reported, including shouting matches and other confrontations. In some cases, police have been called. This interference carries a heightened significance under Washington law. Signature gathering for initiatives and referendums is a protected form of political speech, affirmed by the state constitution, state law, and years of court rulings. Washington makes it a gross misdemeanor to interfere with signature gatherers “by threats, intimidation or any other corrupt means or practice.” (Revised Code of Washington, 29A.84.250)

Wilson’s bill, introduced for consideration during the 2024 session, strengthens existing law by requiring opponents to stand back. It establishes a 25-foot buffer zone around signature gathering activities, and prohibits interference within that zone.

The measure is cosponsored by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, ranking member on the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “Redressing government policy is a fundamental constitutional right that must be protected,” Padden said.

Senate Republican leader John Braun, R-Centralia, called the interference “a shameful attack on the democratic process. Reports that the Democrat party is hiring people to disrupt signature gathering are disappointing. It’s also illegal. If Democrats are so threatened by the initiative process, it’s a sign they know the people will reject the ideas they have forced on Washingtonians. It shouldn’t take legislation to protect the act of collecting signatures by requiring a 25-foot buffer zone around the signature table because one party has such complete disrespect for our citizens, but apparently it does.”