A week ago on Slog, I reported on locals who said they encountered canvassers who didn’t have their facts straight about the head tax. I also wrote about my own run-in with a canvasser who falsely suggested I would be taxed under the policy.
Now, video and audio have emerged that purport to show petitioners giving false information about the head tax.
The clips come from Socialist Alternative and Working Washington, two groups that support the head tax. Both have endorsed a campaign, Bring Seattle Home, to discourage Seattleites from signing anti-head tax petitions. They're opposing a separate campaign called No Tax on Jobs that is attempting to gather 17,000 signatures to place the head tax on the November ballot.
The head tax, passed unanimously by the city council and signed by Mayor Jenny Durkan, collects $275 per employee from businesses grossing more than $20 million when it takes effect next year.
In a video first posted on Facebook by Socialist Alternative, a canvasser for the anti-head tax campaign can be heard telling someone that the policy will collect $500 from businesses. It's actually $275. He also falsely claims that the tax would employees, rather than employers.
The petitioner, who identifies himself as an “independent contractor” from California, also expresses ignorance over which businesses would be affected.
In one part of the video, the person making the recording can be heard saying, “So, you said it’s going to take $500 from big businesses.”
In response, the canvasser says, “I’m not sure it’s just big businesses. It might be all businesses. Everything in Seattle, any jobs in Seattle, would get taxed $500.”
In fact, the tax would only affect the top 3 percent highest grossing businesses in the city.
Socialist Alternative posted a version of the video yesterday that has been edited with text countering the canvasser's message. The party sent The Stranger a version of the video without text overlay. (According to a representative for the party, the person who took the video was interrupted on by phone calls four times, so the group spliced four clips together.)
Here it is:
Working Washington, a labor advocacy group, also posted a clip that purports to show a canvasser spreading a lie about the head tax.
In audio posted on YouTube that Working Washington says took place on May 30 outside a Safeway in Queen Anne, the canvasser can be heard falsely saying the tax would be imposed on employees.
“They’re charging employees $275 a head for no reason,” a man can be heard saying.
"The employees?” a woman responds.
“Yeah, if you have a regular job, they want to take $275 out of your check.”
Is it legal for referendum petitioners to fundamentally mislead voters? The version of Socialist Alternative’s video posted on the Facebook group claims it’s not.
But as far as I can see, the answer to that question isn’t entirely clear.
Back in 2014, when businesses launched a referendum drive against the $15 minimum wage, labor groups claimed canvassers were lying about that ordinance. (Sound familiar?) They sent a letter to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg with nine examples of misleading statements from canvassers against the minimum wage, the Seattle Times reported.
The letter pointed to Washington State law governing referendum drives. Said law prohibits anybody from interfering with a voters’ right to sign or not sign a referendum petition through threats, intimidation, “or any other corrupt means or practice.” SEIU 775 vice president Sterling Harders wrote that lying to get signatures constituted a "corrupt means or practice."
Satterberg's office did not take any action on the letter, instead forwarding it to the Seattle Police Department and the City Attorney’s Office. It’s unclear whether either agency investigated the claims in the letter. I’ve asked both for comment and will follow up if I hear back.
So, the 2014 campaign focused on state law. What about city law? Seattle’s election code outlines what referendum petitions can and can’t say, but doesn’t prohibit canvassers from lying.
Misleading statements from petitioners don't “violate any laws administered by our office,” Wayne Barnett, Executive Director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, said over email.