According to the online resource guide for Just Want Privacy signature gatherers, it's prudent to "say as little as possible about the details" of the initiative and not to mention any of the proposed anti-trans ballot measure's "controversial aspects."
The next bullet point suggests that signature gatherers "could even persuade people who do not totally agree with the initiative" to sign the petition by saying this: "Would you like to support an initiative that would allow the people of Washington to vote on privacy issues regarding women and children?"
The I-1515 campaign is being run by the same people who fought gay marriage in 2012, and the proposed ballot measure would repeal state human rights protections for transgender people in bathrooms and locker rooms. (The proposed ballot measure takes an additional step of mandating that K–12 public schools have gender-segregated bathrooms, and then makes it legal for parents to sue public schools for allowing transgender students to use the gender-segregated bathrooms that don't correspond with the gender they were assigned at birth.) As written, there's little room to interpret the proposed measure as anything but a conservative attempt to legitimize fear of trans people.
But you wouldn't necessarily know these details from encountering an I-1515 signature gatherer in the wild.
As time ticks down to the July 8 deadline for Just Want Privacy to gather enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot, reports have been trickling in about I-1515 signature gatherers allegedly using dubious methods to get people to sign. It's unclear how much of this is due to misinformed signature gatherers or the design of the signature-gathering process itself.
It's no secret that most ballot initiative campaigns rely on paid signature gatherers who may not fully understand what they're asking people to sign. Just Want Privacy is no different: On June 27, Just Want Privacy sent out a campaign fundraising e-mail announcing that paid signature prices had tripled and they needed help paying for their professional signature gathering firm.
The paid signature element might explain why signature gatherers for an anti-trans ballot measure showed up in the heart of the gayborhood during Pride. "They are reporting they got another 30,000 signatures over the weekend," Monisha Harrell, chair of Equal Rights Washington, said. "That's expected. They were doing a big church push." What was less expected: running into three I-1515 signature gatherers while attending Pride. Harrell said that she also spoke to some people who signed the petition, only to realize later what it actually was.
The week before Pride, The Stranger also received multiple reports of an I-1515 signature gatherer on Capitol Hill who was asking passersby to sign a bundle of progressive causes. Several people who started signing the petitions were surprised to learn that I-1515 was at the bottom of the pile. Still, one Capitol Hill signature gatherer assured a Stranger staffer that adding her name to the petition would be asking for "a fair vote for coed bathrooms."
Bundling initiatives isn't uncommon, according to secretary of state communications director David Ammons, but usually people bundle progressive causes and conservative ones separately.
"I don't think there's any particular regulation on that, but definitely we urge 'voter beware,'" Ammons said. "Consumers need to watch what they're signing, especially if there's more than one [petition] to look at. At that point, it doesn't violate a law, but it definitely violates the spirit of accuracy in campaigning."
In 2012, Washington State started requiring political campaigns to list their top five donors on advertising material. If this rule applied to signature gathering, people might see that one of Just Want Privacy's top donors is Cedar Park Church, a Bothell evangelical organization with a history of fighting against marriage equality. The statute, however, maintains a gray area on initiative petitions—and conservative forces have mobilized to keep top donor listings off the forms during this election season.
Earlier this year, Joseph Backholm, the chair of the Just Want Privacy campaign, called the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) to ask if listing donors was required on initiative petitions. According to Jim Camden at the Spokesman-Review, PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson interpreted the broad statute to mean that initiative petitions should list campaign donors. "This sent shock waves through the initiative industry like a rupture in the Cascadia Subduction Zone," Camden wrote.
Not long after Backholm's inquiry, state senator Pam Roach (R-Auburn), a Tim Eyman supporter, demanded that the attorney general look into the matter. She noted that there had been no legislative hearings on a rule that would apply to initiative petitions, and she called Anderson's interpretation of the statute "unfair," as initiative campaigns were already under way.
The attorney general's informal opinion explained Anderson's reasoning: Because initiative petitions often contain content that could meet the definition of "political advertising," the "top 5" rule could potentially apply to them. At the same time, the attorney general noted that a reasonable person could argue that an initiative petition isn't the same kind of advertising as T-shirts, skywriting, newspaper ads, billboards, or signs. The attorney general's office concluded that the rule could go one way or the other, depending on the content of the initiative petition itself.
But regardless of how I-1515 is pitched to the public by signature gatherers, campaign e-mails to Just Want Privacy supporters show a more overtly religious tone. "Just Want Privacy needs every person who believes in God's created order—He created them; male and female He created them—to sign the I-1515 petition and be gathering signatures from the grassroots army sitting in the pews beside them," a recent campaign e-mail instructed followers.
It continued: "We stand not just for the privacy and protection of women and girls, but for the Truth as God declares it to be."
Additional reporting by Heidi Groover