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Bending over backward to get big money out of elections

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You might have seen them at the farmers market, ferry terminal, grocery store or standing on a downtown street corner collecting signatures on oversized clipboards adorned with the message “Get big money out of elections!”

Whether you signed their petition or not, the statewide coalition these signature collectors represent recently succeeded in collecting more than enough signatures to send its initiative to the state Legislature this year, thanks in disproportionate part to Jefferson County's effort.

The initiative, pegged I-735 for short, would make Washington the 17th state to call for a constitutional amendment to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that allow corporations and other artificial legal entities to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections under the guise of free speech.

On the eve of 2016, leaders of the Washington Coalition to Amend the Constitution (WAmend) submitted more than 337,000 signatures in support of their initiative. Although officials recommend turning in about 325,000 in case of invalid signatures, at least 246,372 are required for the Office of the Secretary of State's Elections Division to certify the initiative and send it to the Legislature.

“We blew it out of the water,” said coalition coordinator and initiative campaign chair Diane Jones, a Port Townsend resident who led the push in Jefferson County.

Jones collected more than 5,000 signatures. Add in some 46 other, mostly volunteer signature collectors and Jefferson County's total contribution comes to 17,580.

That's a little more than 5 percent of the statewide total and pales in comparison to the more than 100,000 collected in King County alone. However, considering each county's goal of collecting the equivalent of 10 percent of its registered voters’ signatures or, in Jefferson County's case, some 2,287 signatures, Jones and her team set the curve by collecting 769 percent of that quota.

“Our volunteers got more than seven times that 10 percent goal,” Jones said, clarifying that the signatures represent voters from around the state, not just those in Jefferson County. “We collected the most signatures per capita by far. The only other county that came close was San Juan.”

In raw numbers, King, Spokane and Kitsap counties collected more. In terms of surpassing the 10 percent goal, Jefferson is followed by San Juan County with 267 percent, Island with 183 percent, and Clallam with 159 percent.

“They got much more than the voter population in their area,” said Steve Zemke, the coalition's statewide field director. “They were just so dedicated. They basically saturated the whole area to a tremendous degree.”

Since April 25, 2015, Jones and her fellow signature gatherers have posted themselves at festivals, parades, fairs, farmers markets, grocery stores, ferry terminals and tourist-filled downtown street corners.

Port Townsend resident Linda Brewster, who collected some 3,160 signatures, said volunteering over the past seven months was “practically a full-time occupation.

“I saw it as a marathon to educate people about what's happening with our democracy,” Brewster said. “I just see that things are getting worse and worse, and that corporations and special interests are taking more control of our democracy, and people don't know it.”

VOLUNTEER HOURS

Since 2007, Brewster has served as the regional organizer for nonprofit Move On in Washington, Oregon and Colorado. She's also a member of the coalition's steering committee and campaign committee, though she began collecting signatures two years ago during WAmend's push to get a similar initiative, I-1329, on the 2014 ballot.

“Forming a cohesive group on this was crucial,” Brewster said. “We all agreed we had to do it again when we failed on I-1329. There was some dwindling of effort by some, but we are just stubborn.”

Locally, the push to get big money out of elections came soon after the U.S. Supreme Court's Jan. 21, 2010 Citizens United decision with the Occupy Port Townsend Move to Amend Working Group.

Lead by the late Steve Hamm, that local group in the spring of 2012 succeeded in getting the Port Townsend City Council and Jefferson Board of County Commissioners to pass resolutions supporting a constitutional amendment, making them the first local governments in the state to do so.

“We have a community that really supported us,” Brewster said, in spite of difficulty gaining permission to stand outside the Port Hadlock QFC, the Jefferson County Library and the Chimacum Corner Farmstand.

“We could collect at the Port Townsend Food Co-op, but we were never allowed to collect at the Port Hadlock QFC or Safeway in Port Townsend,” Jones said. “In other counties we had no problem, but those places are population centers and legally we should be able to collect signatures. If people can sell Girl Scout cookies there, we should be able to collect signatures.”

Port Townsend resident Dianne Diamond, who collected 1,720 signatures, coordinated placement of Jefferson County's volunteers. Other volunteers whose collections are worth noting include Judy D'Amore with 1,540, Linda Sutton with 1,320, John Gunning with 940, Todd James with 480, and JoAnn Porter with 380. Most Jefferson County volunteers collected no more than 100 signatures.

“We've done this for a really long time, and it's taken a lot of volunteer hours and a lot of effort,” said Diamond, who began with the local Move to Amend group in February 2012.

PUBLIC EDUCATION

Diamond has been a regular fixture along downtown Port Townsend's Water Street, which she called “a crossroads of people from all over the state of Washington.” After several months of scouring Port Townsend, she and her fellow volunteers noticed that some people could not remember whether they had signed the petition.

“We were all worried that some had signed it twice and so at that point we started going as far afield as we could,” she said, adding that some of the signature collectors traveled to Bainbridge Island, Seattle and as far as Spokane. “So many people were really excited about what we were doing. People would say, 'What a thankless job,' and I would say, 'No, I get thanked every day.'”

Collecting signatures is an exercise in educating people about the issues, as well as the effectiveness of an initiative such as this one, Diamond said.

“People would tell me, 'I believe in everything you are trying to do, but I am not going to sign because I don't think it will do any good,'” she said. “And I would say, 'This tells our legislators, who are supposed to be our representatives, not those of big money, that we are no longer accepting the Citizens United decision, and the numbers of us not accepting it is growing every day.”

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer has endorsed the initiative; none of Washington's three 24th District legislators have done so. This is an election year for Kilmer and this district's state legislators.

Having donated $1,000, the Jefferson County Democrats are the only local-level political party to endorse WAmend's effort, aside from the Spokane County Democrats, which donated $500.

“We're really proud of her,” Jefferson Democrats party chair Bruce Cowan said of Diane Jones, who serves as the party's vice chair. “It's a good reflection on Jefferson County that we support this effort to get big money out of politics.”

NEXT STEP

Secretary of State Kim Wyman provisionally certified the initiative on Jan. 6, allowing state lawmakers to fit it into their short, 60-day session, which began Jan. 11. The signatures must still be officially checked and certified, but enough were submitted to allow for a random check of 3 percent rather than a full-blown review.

Once the initiative goes to the Legislature, lawmakers can enact it as law, take no action and let voters decide in the 2016 general election or draft their own version and send both to the November 2016 ballot.

If the initiative passes, its effect is generally expected to be symbolic, adding yet another state to the movement's nationwide momentum.

“I don't think it's symbolic at all,” Diamond said. “It's not binding, but that doesn't mean it's just symbolic. It's the voice of the people. The big money in our country donates more than we do to our politicians, but we have the votes on our side. We need to start stepping up and demanding what we want from our government.”

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