Paid petition signature gathering in Washington: What’s legal and why

Paid petition signature gathering in Washington: What’s legal and why

A recent news report in the Everett Herald noted that June is a prime petition-gathering month for four statewide initiatives now in circulation.

According to the story, workers collecting signatures to put a referendum on Seattle’s new job tax on the November ballot are being paid $6 per signature, and anyone who gets 75 or more signatures a day gets an entry in a drawing for a four-country trip to Europe.

“Too good to be true? Or legal? Maybe,” the story says.

In fact, Washington law governing how signatures can be collected on petitions has two key aspects:

  1. All petition signatures must be voluntary. Per RCW 29A.84.250, it’s illegal to give or accept money to sign (or decline signing) an initiative or referendum petition.
  2. That said, it’s broadly legal to pay folks to go out and collect those signatures, despite the disapproval expressed in RCW 29A.84.280:
    The legislature finds that paying a worker, whose task it is to secure the signatures of voters on initiative or referendum petitions, on the basis of the number of signatures the worker secures on the petitions encourages the introduction of fraud in the signature gathering process. Such a form of payment may act as an incentive for the worker to encourage a person to sign a petition which the person is not qualified to sign or to sign a petition for a ballot measure even if the person has already signed a petition for the measure. Such payments also threaten the integrity of the initiative and referendum process by providing an incentive for misrepresenting the nature or effect of a ballot measure in securing petition signatures for the measure.

This state of the law raises a question worth explanation: If it’s a crime to pay for signatures, and the Legislature disapproves of paying petition circulators on a per-signature basis, why — and how — is doing the latter legal?

The answer requires a look at court cases and lawmaking going back 30 years.

The short version:

Paying signature-gatherers is legal under the U.S. Constitution. A unanimous 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Meyer v. Grant, threw out a Colorado ban on paying signature-gathers, finding that the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments’ protections of free political expression.

Respecting this, the Washington Legislature in 1993 passed a law that outlawed paying petition circulators on a per-signature basis. The “encourages the introduction of fraud” paragraph quoted above originally entered state law books alongside this ban.

That law was thrown out by a federal court in October 1994.

Since then, paying by the signature has remained legal. That doesn’t mean lawmakers have wanted it to remain so.

In 2007, this House bill and this Senate bill would have reinstated the prohibition (citing a then-recent federal appeals court decision allowed an Oregon ban to stand), but neither got out of committee.

So that chance at a great European adventure remains well within the legal grasp of the eligible signature collectors.

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