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Frequently Asked Questions about Circulating Initiative and Referendum Petitions

The Washington State Constitution reserves to the people the right to approve or reject certain state laws through the process of initiative or referendum. A registered voter, or group of voters, desiring to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot must gather signatures on petitions in order to do so.

The Secretary of State is frequently asked about issues specifically related to the circulation of petitions and signature gathering. The following questions and answers are designed to summarize these issues. For comprehensive information about the initiative and referendum process, see our: Filing Initiative and Referenda Manual.

How many signatures are needed to qualify an initiative or referendum?
Based on the number of votes cast for the office of Governor at the last regular state gubernatorial election, the number of signatures required for initiatives is: 246,372 and the number for referenda is: 123,186.

Since a certain percentage of petition signatures are normally found to be invalid due to duplication and non registration, it is recommended that sponsors file as many signatures as possible.

What are the filing dates for initiatives and referendums?
Generally, the filing period for Initiatives to the People begins in early January and ends in early July; for Initiatives to the Legislature, the filing period begins in early March and ends in late December or early January. (For this year's filing dates, follow the "State Election Calendar" link in our Elections Section.) Petitions supporting a referendum measure must be filed with the Secretary of State no later than 90 days after adjournment of the legislative session at which the act to be referred was passed.

What if I’m against an initiative or referendum? Do I have the right to urge people not to sign a petition?
Yes, as a matter of freedom of speech. Opponents of an initiative or referendum can certainly express the opinion that it would not be a good idea for a voter to sign a petition. An opponent, however, does not have the right to interfere with the petition process. In fact, it is a gross misdemeanor to interfere with somebody else’s right to sign a petition, and there are also laws against assaulting people. You can certainly express your opinion, but you must remember that other people have rights to their opinions as well, including the right to sign petitions you may not like.

If I am asked to sign a petition, am I entitled to read the petition or the proposed measure before I make up my mind?
Yes. State law requires that petitions contain certain information, including the full text of the measure. This includes a ballot title and summary, written by either the Attorney General or a Superior Court judge, and other required information. The full text is usually printed on the back of the petition. Sometimes petition circulators attach the petitions to clip boards in order to make them easier to sign or easier for the circulator to handle. Sometimes the full petition or the full text of the proposal might be folded over or on the back. You should feel free to read any part of the petition that you think is necessary in order for you to make up your mind, even if that means unfolding it or removing it from a clip board.

This principle works both ways, of course. Neither side of an initiative or referendum campaign has the right to prevent the other from expressing opinions.

What are the rules regarding the collecting of signatures at shopping malls, retail stores, etc.?
Gathering signatures for ballot measure petitions is a constitutionally guaranteed practice in the State of Washington. However, the right does not extend to all commercial private property open to the public. To what extent businesses and private property owners can exclude signature gatherers is not clearly spelled out in state law.

For further information on this subject, you may wish to have legal counsel review the principal Washington court decisions on the subject:

  • Initiative 172 v. Western Washington Fair Association, 88 Wn. App. 579, 945 P.2d 761 (1997);
  • Waremart Inc. v. Progressive Campaigns, Inc., 139 Wn.2d 623, 989 P.2d 524 (1999);
  • Southcenter Joint Venture v. National Democratic Policy Committee., 113 Wn.2d 413, 780 P.2d 1282 (1989);
  • Alderwood Associates v. Washington Environmental Council, 96 Wn.2d 230, 635 P.2d 108 (1981).

The Office of the Attorney General has issued an AGO regarding political activity at private shopping centers. The courts’ decisions depended on several factors but the most important factor was whether the business in question had a policy of permitting or welcoming non-commercial, community or political activities onto the property. The courts have characterized this as maintaining a policy of allowing charitable, civic and political groups to use designated "public service centers" on the property.

Can the property owner restrict where, when, or how petitions can be circulated?
Yes, within limits. Washington courts have explained that when initiative or referendum supporters collect signatures on private property, there might be limits so that the activity does not interfere with what other people are doing on the property. Just what limits might be reasonable will depend on the circumstances, including how big the area is, the potential for blocking traffic or interfering with the business involved, or perhaps whether somebody else has already made arrangements to be on the property at a particular time. There might also be other reasonable concerns. The relevant case is Initiative 172 v. Western Washington Fair Assoc., 88 Wn. App. 579, 945 P.2d 761 (1997).

What role does the Office of the Secretary of State play in resolving these disputes?
None. Disagreements between property owners and signature gatherers are civil disputes that can only be resolved by the courts. We urge aggrieved parties to consult their own attorneys, and we make clear any redress is a matter for the courts to decide.

Does the signature gatherer need to sign the declaration on the back of the petition?
No.  Due to an opinion published by the Attorney General's office in 2006, the Office of the Secretary of State does not require that the signature gatherer sign the declaration in order for the petition to be accepted.  For more information, see AGO 2006 No. 13.