Big Box vs. Direct Democracy?
The Washington Retail Association recently expressed misgivings about the protections for petitioning found in Initiative 517. Last year, the group of retailers praised the initiative process based on their strong support for I-1185, which required a vote of the people or a two-thirds legislative majority for any tax increase, but on the heels of activists turning in nearly 350,000 signatures last week to put the initiative reform measure on this November’s ballot, the WRA argues that allowing petitioners to gather signatures outside their establishments may be going too far.
Initiative 517 would allow people to circulate petitions “…on public sidewalks and walkways and all walkways that carry pedestrian traffic, including those in front of the entrances and exits to any store.” I-517 also allows codifies that petitions can be circulated at public venues, including inside certain public places such as sports stadiums.
Two Washington state court cases, 1981’s Alderwood Associates v. Washington Environmental Council and 1999’s Waremart v. Progressive Campaigns, have addressed the right to circulate petitions at stores and malls. The Alderwood case established that signature gatherers do have a First Amendment right to petition at shopping malls, but the Waremart case suggests that stand-alone stores could decide to allow or prohibit petitioning provided they did not allow any other group from the Salvation Army to the Girl Scouts from soliciting or engaging customers inside stores or at store entrances.
Proponents of the petition process contend that signature gathering is a fundamental democratic right. Shawn Newman, an attorney and director of the Washington state Initiative and Referendum Institute, affirms that petitioning deserves special legal protection. “It has been well established,” he points out, “that when you are exercising the initiative power, you are at the front of the line, and you have superior rights over those selling Girl Scout cookies or engaging in another activity.”
Newman also acknowledges that allowing more time to circulate petitions, which I-517 does, would help prevent more aggressive petition tactics. “We face the crunch of trying to get it done in six months, often at the worst time possible, and it typically forces people to petition at those big-box stores.”
While some retailers complain that signature gathering has become more aggressive, Eddie Agazarm, former head of Citizen Solutions, says opponents have become more openly hostile, citing increased political polarization. Agazarm argues that I-517 would help protect peaceful signature gathering from antagonistic opponents. “I can understand if we’re disturbing the peace or shooting heroin while we’re petitioning,” joked the colorful Agazarm, “But if we aren’t committing crimes, why bother us?”