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Originally published Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 4:07 PM

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Guest: Initiative 517 on initiatives offers voters protection

Initiative 517 provides more protections for citizens to vote on qualified initiatives. State Sen. Ann Rivers recommends voters to approve it.

Special to The Times

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OUR right to initiatives and to petition our government is the most important tool we have to push back when government does things we don’t like.

Initiative 517’s primary policy change is guaranteeing you the right to vote on qualified initiatives.

In a unanimous ruling, the Washington state Supreme Court in 2005 rejected an effort by special-interest groups to stop the people from voting on a qualified initiative. Their reason: “Because ballot measures are often used to express popular will and to send a message to elected representatives, pre-election review unduly infringes on free speech.”

Despite this clear ruling by the Supreme Court, dozens of citizen-sponsored initiatives — liberal and conservative — were blocked from a public vote in recent years even though local citizens followed all the rules.

In King County, after local citizens qualified an initiative to reduce the size of the Metropolitan King County Council, the county sued to block the vote.

In Renton, the city council initially rejected letting the people vote on a qualified initiative concerning the local library.

In Vancouver, local citizens collected the required number of signatures for an initiative concerning the Columbia River bridge, but the city refused to let the people vote.

In Bellingham, Monroe, Mukilteo, Redmond, Longview and Wenatchee, local citizens sponsored initiatives letting the voters decide on red-light-ticketing cameras in their communities. In every instance, the city or out-of-state red-light-camera company sued the citizens to block the vote.

Unfortunately, this same thing has happened repeatedly to state and local initiatives.

In every one of these efforts, citizens followed all the rules, yet each of them was hit with expensive, needless obstruction because state law doesn’t clearly mandate a vote on qualified initiatives.

Initiative 517 fixes that: If the initiative qualifies, then the voters decide.

I sponsored a bill in the Legislature that required the same thing: a guaranteed vote on qualified initiatives so voters can have their say. At a hearing on my bill, I heard citizen after citizen tell horror stories of having qualified initiatives blocked, preventing the people from exercising their right to vote.

It was heartbreaking. But even with such compelling public testimony, very few of my colleagues in Olympia supported my bill.

The Legislature is never going to protect the citizens’ initiative process. That’s why Initiative 517 is so important.

The initiative also gives everyone greater access to the initiative process. Since 1912, the number of signatures required to qualify for the ballot has skyrocketed almost tenfold, while the time to manually collect signatures has remained the same at six months. Oregon allows two years; Idaho allows a year and a half. I-517 simply matches the national average, which is one year to collect signatures.

The initiative does one other thing that’s really important: It stops initiative opponents from bullying people who want to sign an initiative petition. Bullying — on sidewalks, walkways and other public places — is becoming far too common. This measure puts a stop to it, setting penalties for interfering with or retaliating against petition signers.

I-517 makes it safe for you to exercise your right to participate and vote. The initiative supports democracy, promotes respectful speech and stops bullying.

What really moved me about I-517 is its guarantee that the people get to vote on qualified initiatives. With its protections, future generations will have the chance to have their voices heard at the state and local level.

When you get your ballot later this month, please vote yes.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, in Clark County, represents the 18th Legislative District.


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