During a weekend jaunt to Seattle Center, I ran into canvassers collecting signatures for a referendum on the head tax.
One of the signature gatherers approached me and asked whether I would like to sign the petition, which seeks to place the head tax up for a vote on the November ballot. She wore a badge indicating that she is a paid canvasser and also carried petitions for initiatives supporting lower car tab fees and banning soda taxes in Washington State.
I asked why I should sign the head tax petition.
“Well, do you want to pay more taxes?” the canvasser responded.
Her statement was misleading. The head tax passed unanimously by the city council and signed by Mayor Jenny Durkan does not collect money from individuals. Rather, the ordinance takes $275 per employee from businesses grossing more than $20 million in annual revenue, and is intended to pay for housing and homelessness services. I am not a business, and I don’t make anywhere near $20 million a year.
I asked the petitioner whether I would be taxed under the ordinance. She did not give a clear answer, but stressed that the petition would repeal the tax. At this point, I identified myself as a journalist and she stopped responding to my questions.
I am not the only Seattle resident who has received misleading information from a head tax referendum petitioner.
Robert McKay, 32, encountered canvassers Tuesday near the intersection of 3rd Avenue and Pine Street. He told me a signature gatherer falsely claimed to him that the head tax ordinance would charge $500 per staffer, and that the money would be collected from employees, rather than businesses.
Ryan Freeman said he spoke with two anti-head tax signature gatherers on Tuesday, May 22. Freeman said the petitioners claimed that the tax is already in effect (it’s not), that two Safeways closed due to it (false), and that they’ve spoken with homelessness service providers who say they haven’t received any of the new revenue (again, the tax does not go into effect until 2019).
To be clear, not every petitioner is giving false information. McKay said that prior to his run-in with canvassers downtown, he encountered signature gatherers at Folklife in Seattle Center who seemed to have their facts straight.
Another Seattle resident who spoke with The Stranger, Daniel Ammons, said he objected to the rhetoric of canvassers outside Central Library. Ammons said one of the petitioners questioned how Seattle still has people experiencing homelessness despite the $15 minimum wage and suggested those people don't want to work. "It was pretty striking to hear someone say that with a straight face," Ammons said.
Ammons said the petitioners also claimed, "We heard we don’t know what this will be used to pay for." This is technically true, as lawmakers won't allocate the new funds until they write a budget this fall, but a bit misleading because the ordinance makes clear the new revenue is intended to go towards housing and homelessness services.
All the petitioners are working or volunteering on behalf of No Tax on Jobs, a political committee that needs more than 17,000 verified signatures by June 15 to place a referendum on the November ballot. Several companies are funding the effort, including Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan, and a trade group representing grocery stores. Businesses have pledged more than $350,000 to the campaign, according to a disclosure report.
A spokesperson for No Tax on Jobs did not immediately respond to request for comment.
McKay and Freeman reported their encounters with canvassers to Working Washington, a labor-backed group that is among the unions and local nonprofits supporting a campaign to dissuade people from signing anti-head tax petitions. The group set up a website called BringHomeSeattle.com, which lists SEIU 775 as its funder.
Seattle residents wishing to remove their name from a referendum petition must submit their request in writing to the Seattle Clerk’s Office before the King County Elections Department begins verifying signatures. The request "must be signed exactly the same as contained on the petition,” according to the city’s Citizen Referendum Guide.
A drive in 2014 to place a referendum on Seattle's $15 minimum wage ordinance was also marred by claims that petitioners provided false information. That campaign failed to get enough signatures. More than 300 residents asked to have their signatures removed from petitions.
Seattle Municipal Code explains in detail how petitions should be worded, but does not say anything about the conduct of signature gatherers. As the Seattle Times noted when minimum wage supporters raised questions about signature gatherers in 2014, Washington State law prohibits people from interfering with a voter's right to sign or not sign a petition by threats, intimidation or any other "corrupt means or practice."
Have an encounter with a head tax referendum petitioner? I'd love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.