Initiative 517: to Change Washington's Initiative and Referendum process

POLICY BRIEF SUMMARY

Key Findings

  1. I-517 would make several changes to state law concerning signature gathering for initiatives and referendums.
  2. Of the states that allow ballot initiatives, Washington has a shorter period for signature gathering; I-517 would increase this time.
  3. I-517 would assure the people’s right to vote on initiatives that submit a sufficient number of valid voter signatures.
  4. It is already against the law to interfere with signature gathering; I-517 would change the current penalty in law.
  5. I-517 would allow broad access to “public buildings” to gather signatures but the measure doesn’t define what a “public building” is.
  6. I-517 includes a broad provision to allow signature gathering on private property.
  7. Passage of I-517 would likely lead to lengthy court battles to determine whether its provisions infringe on constitutional property rights.

Introduction

In November the people of Washington will vote on Initiative 517. The measure would make several changes to state law concerning signature gathering for initiatives and referendums. Initiative 517 would increase the time period for gathering signatures, require that proposals which have an adequate number of valid signatures must proceed to the ballot, change the penalties for interfering with signature gathering, and increase the number of locations, both public and private, where signature gathering can occur.

Text of Initiative 517

According to the ballot title for Initiative 517:[1]

“This measure would set penalties for interfering with or retaliating against signature-gatherers and petition-signers; require that all measures receiving sufficient signatures appear on the ballot; and extend time for gathering initiative petition signatures.”

Here is the summary prepared for the legislature of the changes proposed by Initiative 517:[2]

  • Changes the time period for filing an initiative from 10 months to 16 months prior to the election.
  • Changes violations for interfering with signature gathering from a gross misdemeanor to a misdemeanor, and such violations are subject to anti-harassment procedures, civil penalties, and prosecution for disorderly conduct.
  • Permits signature gathering on sidewalks and walkways in front of store entrances and exits, and inside or outside public buildings.

Legislature did not approve or alter Initiative 517

Initiative 517 was filed as an initiative to the Legislature instead of as a direct initiative to the people. Under Article 2, Section 1 of the Washington Constitution citizens may propose initiatives to the people or to the Legislature. If an initiative to the Legislature is certified lawmakers can approve, reject, or amend the proposal. Since lawmakers did not act on the proposal, the measure was forwarded to the general election ballot for the people to consider. Although the state Senate held a public hearing and took committee action on Initiative 517 during the 2013 regular session, the full Senate and Legislature did not, which is why voters are being asked to vote on the proposal.

Comparison of current requirements and changes proposed by Initiative 517

Here is a comparison of current law and the changes proposed by Initiative 517:

 

Current Law

Under I-517

Time to gather signatures

10 months (6 months for initiatives to the people)

16 months (12 months for initiatives to the people)

Signature gathering on private property

Limited to areas deemed to be a “public square,” such as a large shopping mall with a history of public solicitation access.

In front of the exits and entrances of any store regardless of size or prior public solicitation access. “Store” is not defined.

Signature gathering on public property

No standard rule for signature gathering on public property, though most public entities provide some opportunity for signature gathering with certain restrictions.

Inside or outside all public buildings, including government agencies, higher education institutions, K-12 schools, sports stadiums, convention centers and fairs.  “Public building” is not defined.

Punishment for interfering with signature gathering

A gross misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000 for interfering with signature gathering process.

A misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or a fine up to $1,000 for harassing those circulating or signing a petition. 

Treatment of submitted petitions

Only those proposals with an adequate number of valid signatures and deemed to be within the initiative powers of a jurisdiction can proceed to the ballot.

All state and local proposals with an adequate number of valid signature in jurisdictions that allow  initiatives would proceed to the ballot.


 Download a PDF of the full Policy Brief here.