There's a slight hiccup with Councilmembers Kshama Sawant's and Tammy Morales's Tax Amazon bill.
The goal is to get the Seattle City Council to pass legislation that would put a payroll tax on businesses that have quarterly payrolls of at least $1.75 million. Just in case that doesn't work, Sawant and Morales are putting a Tax Amazon initiative on the November ballot this year to let voters decide.
Well, they're trying to.
There's no way to collect the over 22,000 signatures (10% of the votes cast for mayor in 2017, as stated by the Seattle City Charter) from voters required to get an initiative on the ballot when there's a pandemic going on. Who thought a public health crisis could endanger lives and the democratic process?
COVID-19 has changed more than just the potential fate of a Tax Amazon initiative. It's changed the call to action and where the funds would go. Originally, the plan was to put a 0.7% tax on the big businesses' payrolls and garner around $300 million annually to go toward social housing and implementing fossil-fuel-free buildings. Now, Sawant is calling on a bigger tax (up to $500 million annually) for COVID-19 relief and "immediate cash assistance."
"The thing that's changed is the circumstances we have around us now," Jon Mannella, a board member of the Tenants Union and an organizer with Tax Amazon told The Stranger. "It's pretty clear that you lose your job but you still have to pay your rent. That's been a real big wake up call for a lot of people, especially tenants, that our economy, our system, doesn't work for us."
After the pandemic passes, the tax will support social housing and green infrastructure.
A council bill hasn't been written off, according to Mannella, from what he's hearing, Sawant and Morales "are still putting a lot of pressure on the rest of the city council."
The movement filed the ballot initiative on Thursday. They're asking King County Elections to change the rules for signature gathering.
"We need King County Elections to figure out a way that people can still exercise their democratic rights," Mannella said. "King County Elections needs to look out the window and make some changes."
Except, King County Elections can't really make that call. It's up to Washington's Secretary of State Kim Wyman who oversees elections. That's because, even though counties and cities can make rules around petitions in their city code, "most don’t have their own specific rules and have opted to follow state laws and rules for petitions instead," Halei Watkins, a communications officer with King County Elections told me in an email.
"Current state law does not allow for online signatures because they specifically reference handwritten signatures," Watkins continued, "required formatting of the petition, and it even lays out that the petitions must be printed on single sheets of paper. That kind of precise language in the law doesn’t leave much wiggle room."
There could be a way for Wyman's office to change state rules or amend rules by jurisdiction for the initiative signature-gathering season that lies ahead, but Watkins wrote that she'd "defer to the SOS on what her authority is there."
It's not looking like that will happen.
According to Kylee Zabel, the communications director with the SOS, state law and the state constitution (specifically article II, for you curious cats) outline the processes for initiatives and referendums.
The SOS can only accept handwritten signatures.
"The reason for this is our petition check process involves ensuring the authenticity of the signature," Zabel wrote in an email. "We have to ensure the signatures on the petitions sheets were intentional, and the way to verify that is to have the wet signature. For example, there would be no way to verify whether an electronic signature scanned and then copied onto a petition sheet was intended for that sheet."
That means the Tax Amazon team—and any other group trying to get an initiative or referendum on the November ballot—will need to collect more than 22,000 in-person signatures by August in a time when people are staying inside and six feet away from each other.
However, according to Tallman Trask who helped with I-1639, a 2018 gun control initiative, they "mailed petitions to folks who couldn't otherwise access petitions or who wanted to collect signatures in their community."
"Social distancing will make things harder and create office work," Trask wrote, "but it's certainly not impossible."