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A Guilty Plea in SEIU Initiative Signature-Forging Case – But the Left Turns Embarrassment to its Advantage in the Legislature

Interest Groups Say Union Fraud Case Justifies a Crackdown on Initiatives, and Guess What? - Bill Excludes Labor Unions

 

SEIU’s Adam Glickman testifies in favor of the initiative crackdown before the Senate Governmental Operations Committee Feb. 10.

UPDATE, Feb. 28 — Changes adopted in the Senate Ways and Means Committee weaken some provisions of the bill, eliminating the requirement that signature-gathering companies register with the secretary of state’s office and allowing filing fees to be determined by the secretary of state’s office by administrative rule, rather than being set by statute. The measure is now in the Senate Rules Committee awaiting a vote on the floor.

OLYMPIA, Feb. 26.—Union officials and left-wing activist groups are saying that an embarrassing signature fraud case involving the Service Employees International Union last summer is a terrific reason to regulate everyone else.

            They’re pushing a bill that would impose tight new restrictions on signature-gathering companies. It’s the same basic idea they’ve been backing for years, and it’s looking like it is picking up support in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

            But here’s the funny thing about it. Not only is the SEIU case the only time in recent years that any campaign has turned in fraudulent signatures to the state – the bill that SEIU is backing wouldn’t apply to labor unions.

            Senate Bill 5297 would impose strict new registration requirements on signature-gathering firms, strengthen a requirement that canvassers sign petitions, and jack up initiative filing fees a hundred-fold, from $5 to $500. It’s full-steam ahead for the measure: The Senate Ways and Means Committee passed it Friday afternoon, meaning the bill is likely to get a vote on the Senate floor.

            And it dumbfounds those who have been watching the matter closely. Sometimes you see bills where the arguments are weak. But it’s not often you see a bill where the arguments have no apparent connection with the legislation. And no one seems able to point out a problem that the bill would actually fix.

            “It’s filthy, but that’s politics,” said Edward Agazarm, co-owner of Citizen Solutions, the state’s only locally owned signature-gathering firm.

            “It’s just the two-facedness of it all that really irks me.”

 

            SEIU Official Pleads Guilty

 

            That singular signature-fraud case is nearing its end. In a development that hasn’t been reported until now, former SEIU negotiator Claudia McKinney pleaded guilty Feb. 16 to the felony in King County Superior Court. She is scheduled to be sentenced March 4, and the prosecutor’s office is recommending 20 days in jail or 160 hours of community service.

            What happened is that the union, the biggest backer of last year’s unsuccessful income-tax measure, I-1098, sent members into the field to gather signatures. It paid them at an hourly rate, which is cheaper than hiring a signature-gathering company. Those firms charge by the signature. SEIU spent $96,000 on that part of the campaign.

            The problem was that no one at the union apparently bothered checking the petition sheets before it turned them in to the state. If anyone had looked at some 20 sheets turned in by McKinney, they would have seen 349 signatures filled out in the same hand, with the same pen, on pages that were nice and crisp, unlike the ones carried by canvassers in the field.

            It really wasn’t that hard to catch, Katie Blinn, co-director of elections, told a Senate committee earlier this month. “We look at every petition sheet, and we look at it as a whole, not signature by signature, name by name. That’s how you detect forged signatures. As you look at the sheet, you might say, hmm, all those signatures certainly look the same. That’s how we detected the McKinney forged signatures in the 1098 case last summer.”

 

            There Oughtta be a Law, Union Says

 

            Truth be told, SEIU’s screwup is the only new thing about the argument. The union and allied “progressive” groups have been pushing for initiative restrictions nationwide over the last decade, generally in ways that seem to affect their opposition more than they affect themselves. Several states have banned pay-per-signature gathering, and court challenges are under way; other bills are working their way through state legislatures.

            In this state, the battle is somewhat different. The progressives are training their sights on the nitty gritty details of the law and calling it a matter of  “modernization.” The Senate sponsor of the bill, Sharon Nelson, D-Vashon Island, said, “I think this is [about] transparency in our initiative process.”

            It’s gotten a smattering of attention from the state’s editorial writers, for obvious reasons. Most initiatives that have made the ballot lately have tilted to the right, hammering the Legislature on tax increases and other issues. That makes initiatives an effective tool for combating the interests of the left. And if you look at it that way, it seems a little less like a good-government effort.

            “It’s like, people vote for initiatives that oppose our special interests,” said conservative initiative promoter Tim Eyman. “And it’s too expensive for our special interests to convince voters not to vote for them. So let’s just shut down the initiative process.”

            Yet the strangest part about the effort this year seems to have escaped any attention whatever. The primary support for the bill comes from the only entity that bears a degree of responsibility for the single case of signature fraud that has crossed the state elections desk in recent years. Other support comes from a pair of organizations that are allied with SEIU through the network of “progressive” groups in which it is a major player. They are the national Ballot Initiative Strategies Center, which has been pushing for initiative restrictions nationwide, and the state-level Ballot Initiative Network. Also supporting the bill is the Washington Public Interest Research Group, a liberal activist organization, as well as two organizations not generally considered partisan players, the League of Women Voters and the American Association of Retired Persons.

            They assert initiative fraud is rampant and growing, and last summer’s SEIU affair proves their point.

            Joel Foster of the Ballot Initiative Strategies Center told a Senate committee that the SEIU case seems to demonstrate there must be a lot more fraud that that the state just isn’t catching. “Washington’s ballot measure laws are so porous that the state is unable to identify fraud on a scale that has been discovered in other states,” he said.

 

            Wouldn’t Apply to Unions

 

            The strange thing about the bill – or perhaps not-so-strange – is that it doesn’t seem to have any connection with the SEIU case, the only one anyone can cite. For one thing, the bill imposes a registration requirement on signature-gathering companies, but it doesn’t apply to labor unions. The bill defines signature-gathering companies as those whose major source of revenue comes from signature gathering, and since unions get their money from union dues, they fall outside the scope.

             Among other things, operators of signature-gathering firms would have to certify to the secretary of state’s office that they haven’t been convicted of any recent serious felonies. They also would have to sign a declaration acknowledging that they are responsible for crimes committed by the canvassers they employ. The whole thing seems to stump most observers – no one knows of any problem that registration would solve.
But it also could mean that if another SEIU-style case emerges, signature companies could be prosecuted while unions could be held harmless.
            “I don’t get it,” Agazarm said. “Would this mean I’m responsible if one of my canvassers robs a bank?”

           

            Would Require Signatures

 

Another element of the bill is aimed at canvassers themselves. Washington law since 2005 has required that petition sheets contain a signature blank on the back for the canvassers who carry the petitions. But it doesn’t require that canvassers sign them.

Nearly all of them sign the petitions anyway – upwards of 90 percent – because most successful initiatives these days are promoted by companies that pay their canvassers. Those companies use the signatures to track canvassers’ work. That’s how Citizen Solutions caught a pair of canvassers in Spokane who forged signatures for a 2008 ballot measure. It identified the forgeries before the petitions were turned in to the state, and it referred the matter to local authorities for prosecution. Unlike SEIU, professional companies are going to look at the sheets, Agazarm says – it’s their business.

 SEIU required the signatures as well last year, since it was paying for the petition drive. That’s how the secretary of state’s office tracked down McKinney when it spotted the forgeries.

Makes sense to require it of everyone, said Glickman, public affairs director for SEIU local 775. “Clearly this is a tool that works and a tool that should be required of all petitioners.”

 

            Chilling Effect

 

State elections officials support this part of the bill – they say it clears up the rule.

But there are a couple of interesting things about it. The requirement would subject petition sheets to a full line-by-line check if petitions aren’t filled out properly. That’s a potential problem for the few remaining campaigns that still use volunteers.

More importantly, it would move the signature blank to the front of the sheet – the part that state officials maintain is public information. The bill would require not just the name, but the address.

A couple of years ago, when an anti-gay-rights initiative made the ballot, opponents announced plans to publicize the names of every signer on the Internet. Many saw it as an obvious tool for harassment, and it has prompted a long-running court battle over whether those signatures are public information. But if that’s the case, the same argument can made ten times over about publicizing the names and addresses of volunteers who support politically unpopular causes. Jennie Stephenson of Lacey, a volunteer signature gatherer who has worked on several campaigns, told the Senate committee that she would have to think twice if she knew her personal information was going to be delivered to political opponents.

“Passions run high around some of these initiatives, so before I go out and gather signatures again, I’m going to have some serious second thoughts as to whether I think I think I feel safe enough in doing that.

“To the extent that I have to give second thoughts to the exercise of my constitutional rights, I find it immensely troubling.”

            And as the bill makes its way through the Legislature, opponents scratch their heads.
“What’s the problem?” asked Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. “What are we trying to fix?”