Note: This post was written last month. Eyman’s measure lost in the November elections, winning just over 37 percent of the votes.
If you haven’t heard of Tim Eyman, you probably haven’t lived in Washington state. He’s a libertarian-minded activist and force of nature who is responsible for more initiatives than any one in that state’s history.
I know and like Tim personally, but disagree with him not only on policy issues but also on the initiative process. Still, there’s a lot of good in his current initiative, numbered 517 in Washington state, and people interested in governance reform in California should take a look at it.
Tim frames his initiative as protecting the initiative process. And in so doing, he raises an issue that is far bigger than the initiative process and deserves more attention: public space.
In California and elsewhere, there is less and less space for petition circulators – and anyone else who wants to talk with members of the public – to do their work. Stores, malls, stadiums, even the post office have declared clearly public spaces, such as the sidewalks in front of them, to be private, and sought to bar people from exercising their First Amendment rights, including the right to petition, in such places. Law enforcement has also been too quick to take the side of property owners when there are disputes about the use of such spaces.
This is a huge problem for the initiative process. It adds to the costs of qualifying measures, and it means that petition circulators have to be more aggressive, literally chasing people. (Unfortunately, this circulator aggression is being used against Eyman’s measure, while in fact it’s an argument for opening up more spaces so circulators don’t have to be so aggressive). Eyman’s initiative does a great job of expanding public space for initiatives (and one hopes this would apply for other activities), saying that circulators would have access to “public sidewalks and walkways and all sidewalks and walkways that carry pedestrian traffic, including those in front of the entrances and exits of any store, and inside or outside public buildings such as public sports stadiums, convention/exhibition centers, and public fairs.”
It would be great if California’s would-be reformers included similar provisions here. (For one thing, expanding initiative rights might be one way to convince voters to also adopt measures that could be portrayed as limiting the initiative right). California also would be smart to adopt provisions that extend the time limits for qualifying initiatives, effectively giving proponents up to a year to qualify (and up to 16 months from filing to the election date).
If anything, we should have more time for initiatives (Florida offers 4 years) so there’s plenty of time not only for gathering but for deliberation, scrutiny by opponents, revisions and the fixing of mistakes.
Eyman’s measure also goes too far in imposing new legal penalties against those who would discourage people from signing measures. Eyman’s heart is in the right place – the measure includes provision to prevent physical efforts to block petitions – but it also would criminalize yelling, screaming, or “maintaining an intimidating presence,” whatever that is. The free speech rights of those who oppose petitions should be just as important as the rights of those who circulate them.
Recent polling suggests Eyman’s measure is likely to lose, as political reforms often do. But it’s a measure we can learn from.