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Originally published Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 4:05 PM

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Guest: I-517 is flawed measure on initiatives and should be defeated

Initiative 517 is a deeply flawed measure, write Washington’s former Secretary of State Sam Reed and former Auditor Brian Sonntag. Voters should reject it.

Special to The Times

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INITIATIVE 517 is an initiative aimed at reforming the referendum and initiative process in Washington state. Titled “Protect the Initiative Act”, I-517 uses clever, ambiguous language to deceive the voters into thinking it is actually about protecting the democratic process. In reality what lies in the details is a deeply flawed measure.

I-517 would increase the amount of time that initiative supporters have to collect signatures and allow out-of-state petitioners to operate unrestricted in any public place in Washington year round.

This means that community institutions such as schools, libraries, hospitals, even high-school-sports stadiums and fields lose all rights to regulate signature gathering inside the premises. Venues such as Safeco Field, CenturyLink Field, convention centers and public fairs would also be affected.

Can you imagine watching your child’s sports game and having a paid signature gatherer come up and ask for your signature? Or reading a book to your young one in the library and being solicited? Or being approached over and over again while waiting in line for a snack at the Seahawks game?

Under I-517, this will be our new reality.

Petitioners are already allowed to operate outside of these venues as people enter and exit. But I-517 takes it a step further, allowing petitioners inside — in walkways, aisles, waiting rooms, even seats.

Washingtonians should not have to be subjected to constant signature solicitations inside venues where they have chosen to spend their free time with family, friends and loved ones.

Another major part of I-517 concerns harassment protection for signature gatherers. It establishes a 25-foot protected area around a signature gatherer, within which any interference in their activity is illegal and punishable as a misdemeanor.

If you make any attempt to ask a solicitor to move if they are blocking your way, to leave you alone if they are harassing you or to change their actions if they are exhibiting aggressive behavior toward you, you are in violation of the law.

I-517 protects only the paid petition signature gatherers from harassment, when in reality oftentimes it is the citizens who are being harassed. Who wants to go to the grocery store and worry about having to pass through a gauntlet of paid signature gatherers on their way in?

Business owners are also very concerned about this initiative, as it takes away their ability to protect their customers’ rights and to create a nonhostile, welcoming customer experience. This initiative changes the law to make paid petitioning a protected activity on all sidewalks and walkways that carry pedestrian traffic.

Business owners will no longer be able to establish whether or not to allow signature gathering immediately outside their store entrances or exits. Nor will they be able to ask an aggressive signature gatherer to change his or her behavior or to leave their property.

Lastly, I-517 requires a public vote on any state or local referendum or initiative that has enough qualifying signatures, regardless of the legality of the measure. This seems like a fair idea in theory, but it doesn’t take into account the taxpayer money that will be wasted by tangling up in litigation unconstitutional initiatives, or those not within the scope of local initiative power.

This provision takes away the ability to vet these initiatives before they becomes needlessly expensive to the taxpayer.

We absolutely understand what an important democratic tool the initiative process is and agree that we should be having conversations about updates and improvements to the system.

However, this haphazard initiative, written by people whose actual goal is to increase the profitability of the signature-gathering business, is the opposite of the democratic process it claims to be trying to protect.

Sam Reed, left, was the Washington state secretary of state from 2000 to 2012. Brian Sonntag was Washington state auditor from 1992 to 2012.


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