Legislators at any level seek clarity. Bills (most of the time) are written with an eye toward removing ambiguity. Lawmakers hate to see their legislative babies shepherded through the process only to be overturned, misinterpreted, or misapplied.
That’s why legislators in Olympia keep a bevy of code revisers and staff attorneys around. Their purpose is to write air-tight legislation and to fully understand how various bills would change the law if enacted.
But try as they may, they can’t be sure that anything is really air-tight until it’s fought over and tested in the courts. Most state laws and regulations never will be. Only with those that are can we really know which rules are really rules, and what a law’s parameters truly are.
Which is why Initiative 1639, a new gun control effort, is headed to the courts – either now, or after the election. But it creates a headache for Secretary of State Kim Wyman in the meantime as she decides how to respond and what the law really allows her to do. It’s all a bit confusing.
What’s clear, however, is that I-1639’s sponsors didn’t follow the law.
Deep pockets paid whatever price necessary
I-1639 is the latest gun control scheme, funded mostly by wealthy donors Paul Allen and Nick Hanauer. It would raise the age to purchase a rifle, require safety training courses, and impose storage rules, among other provisions.
Despite a short window to gather signatures, I-1639’s deep-pocketed donors were willing to pay far more per voter signature than other campaigns. In record time, motivated signature gatherers collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
But does I-1639 qualify? Key requirements were glossed over by the campaign.
Signature petitions must be clear, highlight changes
State law says the backside of signature petitions – the big 11×17 sheets of paper voters are given to sign – are required to include certain elements.
All petitions must have a “readable, full, true, and correct” copy of the initiative on the backside, per RCW 29A.72.100. The petitions for I-1639 did not.
I-1639’s petitions also lacked proper underlining and strikethroughs. These are required so voters can know precisely how an initiative will change current state law if enacted.
These are not small issues. The Olympian editorial board, one of the most liberal in the state, noted that I-1639’s backside text was in a “tiny, hard-to-read font.” It also wrote, “The standard is for initiatives to underline any new language and to run a line through any wording to be repealed,” but the I-1639 campaign failed to do so.
Surely that must mean it doesn’t qualify for the ballot…right?
One might think, since the law requires initiative petitions to include certain elements and the I-1639 campaign failed to include them, that the petitions are invalid. One might also think, since the elected Secretary of State is charged with certifying initiatives, that it would be up to Wyman to disqualify I-1639.
But – and here’s what lawmakers failed at that “lack of ambiguity” thing – state law spells out the acceptable reasons that the Secretary of State can fail to certify an initiative. RCW 29A.72.170 spells out three: Failure to gather enough signatures, failure to meet the deadline, and failure to include a proper oath on the petitions.
Failure to include all required elements on the petitions isn’t one of the reasons the Secretary of State can cite to not certify an initiative. So even though it is Wyman’s job to certify or not certify initiatives, and even though I-1639 didn’t follow requirements, it appears state law doesn’t let Wyman reject the gun control initiative herself, despite its clear deficiencies.
To the courts, one way or the other
I-1639 will be challenged in court. The only question is, will it be before November’s election or after?
The Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation already filed suit to challenge I-1639’s illegal petitions and block the initiative from the ballot. According to the Olympian, “The state Supreme Court’s commissioner rejected SAF’s first suit, saying that only Wyman’s office had standing to bring a challenge.” The group plans to sue again.
For now that puts the ball in Wyman’s court, whose main worries are twofold. One the hand, she doesn’t want to set a precedent where initiatives make the ballot with improper petitions. But she is also worried, as the Olympian paraphrased it, that it “may taint her agency’s reputation for political neutrality.”
How the worm turns from here is unclear, but one thing is clear: Given that recent initiative campaigns large and small have all avoided this particular legal headache, whatever the I-1639 campaign paid its attorneys was too much. They really messed up on this one.