Proponents of I-517 reinforce its protections
One of the proponents of Washington State’s Initiative 517 and retired president of Citizen Solutions, Eddie Agazarm, drafted a letter which can serve to answer opponents to portions of I-517’s protections. It follows:
Eddie Agazarm, co-sponsor of Initiative 517 which puts the citizen back in the citizens’ initiative.
Over the weekend, I found the attached letter from then Secretary of State Ralph Munro to all county prosecutors regarding his recognition of and strong opposition to the harassment of petitioners. I ask that you please read his powerful letter top-to-bottom (excerpt: “As the chief elections officer of the state, I am increasingly concerned about complaints that the rights of our citizens to circulate and sign initiative and referendum petitions are being interfered with. … I am very concerned about what may be a growing trend toward using harassment to undermine the rights of the people to the democratic process. … The Washington Supreme Court has emphasized that citizens circulating initiative petitions have a constitutional right to do so on property open to the public. … When individuals turn to intimidation as a way of interfering with the rights of others to engage in the initiative process … it is very important to the people of Washington that their right to the initiative process not be overcome by the efforts of those who would resort to threats and intimidation in order to interfere with that right.”)
Munro recognized the danger and took a leadership role protecting signers and petititioners (From the Olympian: “It’s a war zone out there” … “The degree of ugly is high.” … “I don’t think there’s any question about it — it’s going to get worse,” concedes Secretary of State Ralph Munro.).
His letter and local news stories spurred a passionate editorial by the Tacoma News Tribune (“STATE INITIATIVE RIGHTS UNDER SIEGE. Street thuggery is a time-honored tool of fascists, communists and others who fear they won’t prevail in a free and open political debate. Needless to say, it is anathema to the democratic process — which emphatically includes the right to circulate initiatives in Washington state. So it is disturbing to hear that political activists are again reporting harassment and intimidation as they gather signatures for measures they hope to put on the state ballot. … Everyone should understand that this isn’t a minor issue. Washington’s initiative process — a basic right of citizenry in this state — is very much in danger. If shouting, shoving, obstructing and threatening prove effective in keeping contentious measures off the ballot, these brownshirt tactics could be here to stay.” — their complete editorial is attached).
And this from Mike Oakland, editorial page editor of the Olympian: “Collecting signatures on initiative petitions should not be a life-threating experience. Unfortunately, the streets have become a battlefield. … Let these issues be decided on the merits - not on fisticuffs and street-corner brawls.”
His letter and these editorials, as well as the news stories, sworn declarations, blockers’ internal memos, court documents, and committee testimony listed below show that there is a very real and ongoing problem that Initiative 517’s protections address.
February, 1995: Fred Meyers violated a petitioner’s constitutional rights by having her detained and arrested (a jury slapped Fred Meyers with a $2.1 million dollar judgment). See attached Associated Press story that ran in the Seattle PI.
June, 1995: Excerpt from TNT news story: “A batch of controversial initiative proposals is stirring fierce passions this year — so fierce there have been assaults, arrests, and lawsuits. … The fervor these initiatives stir — as well as the increasingly organized efforts to both collect signatures and block signature-gathering — are leading to messy and disruptive incidents, activists say. Petitioners say they’ve been spat on. They say they’re stalked by opponents trying to dissuade voters from signing the petitions. … This week, Secretary of State Ralph Munro sent letters to all county prosecutors, reminding them it is against the law to interfere with a person’s right to sign a petition. ‘I am very concerned about what may be a growing trend toward using harassment to undermine the rights of the people to the democratic process,’ Munro wrote.”
December 7, 1997: Excerpt from Seattle Times news story: “John Carlson, I-200 campaign chairman said, “The bad news is that our petitioners have been spat on, physically blocked from asking people to sign the initiative and called obscene and vulgar names, as well as racist names.”
December 14, 1997: Letter to the editor, Seattle Times: “I do not support I-200 but I do support their right to petition, free from harassment and intimidation. I wasn’t going to sign this petition, but now I’m headed out to find a petitioner.” Cindee Moore, Tacoma
January 1, 1998: Excerpt from Seattle Times news story: “Carlson is still stinging over I-200 opponents’ attempts to prevent voters from signing petitions. ‘I’ve never seen a dirty-tricks strategy … like I’ve seen in this campaign,’ he said, referring to reports of petition gatherers being spit on and signatures being ripped out of their hands.”
May, 2004: from Danielle Martin’s sworn declaration: “On several occasions, Mr. Nichols followed me around the front of the Wal-Mart in a harassing manner. I tried to stay away from him, but he and the other two repeatedly followed me. He screamed at me and people who were interested in signing petitions or registering to vote. He yelled that I was responsible for firing librarians and firefighters and that all the initiatives were the same. He also stood so close to me I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. He would grit his teeth and flail his arms or hold his hands behind his back and then suddenly reach out in a manner that was threatening to me. On another occasion, a Hispanic gentleman who spoke only Spanish to me was excited about the opportunity to register to vote because he had been recently naturalized. He was in the process of pulling out his identification when Mr. Nichols reached across me and slapped his large hand over the clipboard which I was holding and which contained the blank voter registration card. His reach was toward the Hispanic man’s wallet which he was in the process of opening. The Hispanic man said to me in Spanish “I’m sorry, but I can’t stay,” and immediately ran away to his car. Because of these harassing incidents, I have not been out collecting signatures since, and therefore my opportunity to work has been severely limited. I am afraid of meeting Mr. Nichols or his associates again. I have suffered significant emotional distress as a result of the Defendants’ conduct. I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the State of Washington that the foregoing is true and correct.”
(Her complete sworn declaration and photos of her ordeal can be seen here: http://www.voterswantmorechoices.com/Harassment1.html)
March, 2004: Secret, internal memos sent to members of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees (AFSCME - AFL-CIO): “Keep an eye out. The best way to beat this is at the signature gathering stage. Please let us know if you see those paid signature hunters in your area and let them know in no uncertain terms what their job will do to your job! Every signature we stop is one more Eyman has to pay for.” “If you see a signature gatherer, call us. We want to do all we can to stop them.” “If you see a signature gatherer, we suggest you ask signature gatherers if they are being paid, find out their names and take their pictures (alone). ‘We would like to identify as many as possible.’” Here’s more: http://www.voterswantmorechoices.com/Harassment1.html
January, 2007: And here’s J. Anderson, who is now 74, who testified in 2007: “There are a lot of wonderful people who live in the state of Washington but there are a lot of real weirdos out there too. I feel it’s utterly callous disregard for our safety and our protection that if you are gonna force us into doing that (putting names and addresses on petitions and being registered by the government to collect signatures). And at my age, and many of the other women that work with us are in their 60’s and even the ones in their 30’s and that men that are out there are all in danger. I’ve been spit on. I’ve had French Fries thrown at me, which doesn’t hurt but it’s not very nice. I’ve had people follow me to my car. I’ve had notes left on my vehicles. I just feel like the world is crawling with sex offenders and I’m going to sit here with a label on me saying who my name is and who I’m working for and they can pull this up on the internet somewhere. And there’s identity thieves out there. I think you haven’t thought this thing through, Mr. McDermott. I really don’t think you’ve got me in mind. I just don’t think you’re working for me. And I don’t think you’re working for a lot of other people that are out there doing their First Amendment rights. And I beg you that there’s nothing wrong — this is grassroots, it’s grassroots at its finest — no matter how much money and all we keep talking about is all this money — it’s grassroots. I come from Iowa where (interrupted by Chairman Hunt) … Just let us have our initiative process.” Rep. McDermott responds: “I’m not taking it away.” Ms. Anderson answers softly: “You’re making it hard.”
February, 2008: Excerpt from a sworn declaration from Erma Turner, who happens to be in her 70’s: “In 2006 other incidents happened to me when I was gathering signatures for I-917 around the Ellensburg and Kittitas stores. I got verbal and the middle finger abuse. These initiatives I-695 and I-917 didn’t require my name and address. I can imagine and fear someone like this who is against an initiative I am promoting, coming up to me and asking to see if I’ve signed my name, address, and phone number. I feel that it’s not worth putting myself and my family in jeopardy any longer. There are a lot of idiots out there trying to sabotage our right to petition so it’s really scary. While I hope to continue exercising my right to petition free from intimidation, if any of these bills pass, then I won’t be able to do any more signature gathering. I’m sorry; it’s just too frightening for me.”
February, 2011: Here’s committee testimony from a woman from Tacoma: “Good morning, my name is Jennie Stephenson and I want to thank you very much for the opportunity to come before you today. I’m strongly opposed to this bill and I’m going to be very succinct. I believe that it’s a deliberate attempt to squelch my constitutional right to initiative. And let me explain to you what I mean by that. I’ve got objections to many of the sections but I want to focus on one. As a single female over the age of 60, I’ve been and continue to be a volunteer signature gatherer. I have concerns about my address, phone number and all of that being available on these petitions. I have concerns about my safety. Passions run high around some of these initiatives. So before I go out and do it again, if I go out and gather signatures again, I’m gonna have to give it some serious second thought to whether or no I feel safe enough in doing that with these requirements. And to the extent that I have to give second thoughts to the exercise of my constitutional rights, I find immensely troubling.”
December 5, 2011: Complaint for injunctive relief: “On November 13, 2011, King County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Luis Caballero arrested Plaintiff Benjamin Schroeter for criminal trespass at CenturyLink Field and Event Center. Mr. Schroeter was arrested solely because he was collecting signatures for Washington State Initiative 502 to legalize marijuana (“I-502”). When he was arrested, Mr. Schroeter was standing outside CenturyLink Field on a public walkway in the north parking lot (“North Lot”), as fans and ‘tailgaters’ gathered before the scheduled Seattle Seahawks game. Sgt. Caballero seized nine complete or partially complete I-502 petitions from Mr. Schroeter; then Mr. Schroeter was take n to the King County Jail and booked … spending over twenty-four hours in detention. Despite Mr. Schroeter’s repeated requests, the King County Sheriff’s Office refuses to return the seized I-502 petitions.”
December 5, 2011: Complaint for injunctive relief: “On November 26, 2011, during the ‘tailgating‘ in the North Lot before the Apple Cup at CenturyLink Field, volunteer I-502 canvassers and Plaintiff Tonia Winchester, went to collect signatures in and around the North Lot. The deputies and security agents said that it was the policy of the “owner” that political signature gathering and posters were banned from the North Lot, although they could produce no documentation of such and other persons in the area were engaged in speech activities and other actions, including public drinking, that were supposed to be prohibited.”
July, 2012: Petitioners threatened with arrest for petitioning at the Tour de Terrace public festival in Mountlake Terrace.
September, 2012: Petitioners threatened with arrest and told no free speech activity on Skagit Valley Community College campus (police told petitioner he could petition, but school called the City Attorney who contradicted the officer).
December, 2012: Snohomish County Sheriff told petitioner that no free speech activity is allowed at the Snohomish County Park & Ride.
Whenever citizens are out in public, the right to initiative speech needs to be protected and the peaceful participants free from harassment, limitation, or censorship, whatever the source.
Let me close by saying that for every documented case of violence, interference, and harassment of petitioners, there are many more that have occurred but gone unreported. Some make headlines, like the false arrest of petitioners at CenturyLink field and Pioneer Park. While other incidents like getting run off public parks, public rest stops and public transit centers go unnoticed altogether. Again, there is a very real and ongoing problem that Initiative 517’s protections address.
YES on 517