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Originally published August 14, 2013 at 8:58 PM | Page modified August 14, 2013 at 9:38 PM

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Some signature-gatherers play both sides on gun checks

Apparently seeking to bump up their earnings, some petition professionals are collecting signatures for initiatives on both sides of the debate over background checks for gun sales.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Talk about a convoluted sales pitch.

As supporters and opponents of universal background checks for gun sales try to get competing proposals on the Washington state ballot, some industrious signature- gatherers are making extra money by simultaneously collecting John Hancocks for both.

The double-agent professional signature-gatherers, apparently seeking to increase their earnings by capitalizing on voter ignorance, indecisiveness or a hyper-democratic desire to give everything a public vote, are not acting illegally. But organizers of both initiative drives say they are undermining the process.

“Both sides are trying to stop this,” said Zach Silk, campaign manager for pro-background check Initiative 594. “It’s the one thing that we can agree on.”

Silk and Alan Gottlieb, a spokesman for the gun-rights Initiative 591, said they do not know how many of their paid signature-gatherers are also carrying the others’ petition. But each said they have received about a dozen complaints about it.

The dynamic is playing out in the rare year when there are two well-financed, proposed ballot measures related to one major issue.

Records maintained by the Secretary of State’s Office show that competing initiatives have been on the same ballot a half-dozen or fewer times in state history.

Background checks, meant to prevent felons and people with mental illness from obtaining weapons, are currently required for sales from licensed firearms dealers, but not for purchases from private citizens, including online and at gun shows.

Initiative 594 would extend the checks to almost all gun transfers.

Initiative 591, alternatively, would prohibit Washington state from adopting a stricter background-check standard unless the federal government does so. It would also prohibit any confiscation of firearms without due process.

The proposals are intended as initiatives to the Legislature, meaning they would go to Olympia in January 2014 and, if not adopted there, to the ballot that November.

That path requires 246,000 valid signatures by Jan. 3.

Both campaigns are using a combination of volunteer and professional signature-gatherers, who are paid by the signature — typically about $1 apiece.

Initiative 591 has hired two Washington state-based signature-gathering firms: Democracy Workshop and Citizen Solutions. Initiative 594 is using a California-based firm, PCI Consultants.

Each firm has a stable of on-the-ground signature-gatherers who operate as independent contractors.

Elizabeth Campbell, the founder and director of Democracy Workshop, said she has directed her contractors not to collect signatures for the other side. But she said she ultimately has little control over what they do.

“Independent contractors can do whatever they want in a sense because they’re independent contractors,” Campbell said.

Angelo Paparella, PCI president, articulated an even more hands-off approach.

“We don’t have a policy against it. We’re not trying to prevent it. Most people will carry both,” he said. “That’s just the nature of the beast.”

Paparella added that signature-gatherers are simply asking voters if they want to vote on an issue — not which way they plan to vote.

Edward Agazarm, aka “Eddie Spaghetti,” of Citizen Solutions, did not return messages seeking comment.

State law does not prohibit collecting signatures for multiple campaigns or even lying in a signature pitch, said Dave Ammons, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office.

The office’s records of competing initiatives actually making the ballot include 2010’s Initiatives 1100 and 1105, which both sought to privatize liquor sales. Both lost.

Other examples took place in 2005 (related to medical malpractice), 1993 (related to tax limits), 1948 (related to liquor sales) and 1944 (related to old-age assistance).

In this case, the double-agent dynamic is playing out in different ways, according to initiative organizers.

Some signature-gatherers are actually trying to persuade voters to sign both petitions.

Others, usually carrying the petitions on opposite sides of a clipboard, first ask how a passer-by feels about background checks. Then, depending on the response, they flip the clipboard a certain direction.

“Either way,” said Gottlieb, “it’s annoying.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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