The pandemic has thrown a wet blanket on direct democracy in Washington.
Normally around this time, initiative campaigns would be hiring canvassers to knock doors and stand on street corners to gather enough signatures to earn a spot on the November ballot, which is particularly attractive real estate this year given that the presidential election will likely draw a historically large Democratic electorate.
But with Washington opening two weeks after the July 2 filing deadline for petitions—if we're lucky—stay-home orders and physical distancing requirements drastically reduce a canvasser's ability to safely collect those signatures in time, especially since state law requires handwritten signatures—also called, disgustingly, "wet" signatures, for verification purposes. These social restrictions and state regulations potentially imperil campaigns to tax big business in Seattle, to decriminalize drugs statewide, or to do any of this other freaky shit.
In light of all that, in a press conference Monday morning members of Tax Amazon and the Seattle chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) called for city and state lawmakers to change laws and regulations to accept digital signatures gathered by initiative campaigns. But fulfilling such a demand would require lawmakers to act quickly and decisively on an issue that ultimately undermines their power. It would also likely require amendment to the state constitution and/or, in Tax Amazon's case, the city charter. All of which would be, to borrow a phrase, a pretty heavy lift at the moment.
In a letter to the Seattle City Council and state lawmakers, NLG-Seattle president Philip Chinn lays out the actions he thinks legislators would need to take to allow for digital signature collecting and verification, thus preventing the public's right to create laws through initiatives from becoming "a casualty of this pandemic."
1. The Seattle City Council should ask the people to amend the City Charter Article IV, Section 1B, to allow for a verification process that accommodates electronic petitions and signatures.
2. The Seattle City Council should amend Seattle Municipal Code Chapter 2.08 to allow for electronic petitions and the collection of electronic signatures.
3. The Secretary of State and the State Legislature should modify state laws and rules that require handwritten signatures for validation, e.g., RCW 35.21.005 and WAC 434-379-020, and establish a standard platform for signing state-wide, county, and city initiatives, such as through vote.wa.gov or secureaccess.wa.gov.
Advocates argue these "modernization" measures make sense given that we sign contracts and bank online. In terms of sacredness and security issues, they say signing a petition is closer to filing to run for office than it is to voting. (The former can be done online, while the latter can be done only if you're voting in the King County Conservation District's election.) They also argue that the state could use existing websites, such as vote.wa.gov or secureaccess.wa.gov, as the platform for collecting and verifying digital signatures.
During the press conference, Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin of the NLG admitted that making the changes at the state level will be "a low priority for the legislature," as he doesn't think "direct democracy is a high priority for people in power."
As a general matter, direct democracy has been a bit of a mixed bag in Washington. Progressive activists have won legal weed, gay marriage, and death with dignity, while conservatives have gutted transit funding for the sake of lower car tabs and banned affirmative action.
As a practical matter, lawmakers likely won't meet for a special session until early fall anyway, and even then they'll only do so to make massive cuts to core programs, unless of course the people rise up and demand progressive taxation across the state. Calling a special session before then just to make it easier for the Tax Amazon movement to leverage political pressure on the mayor and the city council to pass a payroll tax on large businesses, or to make it easier for other initiative campaigns to create new laws, seems like an extremely remote possibility.
As an even more practical matter, as far as King County Elections knows, no one in the country allows for digital signature gathering and verification. "We'd be inventing something new," said Kendall Hodson, Chief of Staff at King County Elections. "It seems very difficult. It's not like we'd be uninterested in the future, but we don't have the technology figured out right now."
King County Elections, which verifies petition signatures for city initiatives, has been recommending that campaigns email their petition form to people, have the recipients print out and sign the form, and then mail it back. The other, more expensive option, is mailing physical copies of the petition and hoping people mail it back.
During the press conference, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant argued that mass mailing campaigns are prohibitively expensive for grassroots organizers, and favor corporate-backed initiatives. She claimed mass mailers have a 1% return rate, so local campaigns would have to send out over 200,000 pieces of mail to obtain the 22,040 signatures they'd need to make the ballot, which would cost "on the order of $100,000 or more."
Even though digital petition signatures won't count unless lawmakers make all the changes mentioned above, and even though King County Elections says they don't have the tech in place to handle the verification, the Tax Amazon movement is nevertheless collecting petition signatures online and have gathered "about 3,500 signatures so far from Seattle voters."
Other initiative campaigns are taking the more expensive route for the moment and holding out for better canvassing conditions. Christina Blocker, spokesperson for the Treatment First WA campaign, which aims to decriminalize drug possession, said their campaign "is not pursuing e-signatures; our campaign will begin with mail-only petition circulation and continue monitoring public health developments to determine whether and when public signature gathering utilizing social distancing and additional protective measures could be added."