OLYMPIA — In one of Washington’s most consistent political traditions, groups every year gather signatures on petitions to submit initiatives seeking to change state laws.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has upended even that, as restrictions on gatherings to slow the spread of the new coronavirus have made it harder to gather needed signatures.

Now, as the pandemic continues, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman is asking a court to declare that petition signatures must be submitted in written form rather than electronically, as a host of groups seek to qualify initiatives.

In a challenge filed Friday in Thurston County Superior Court, Wyman argued that state law specifies that written signatures are required — and are necessary to make sure they represent valid state voters.

“Since 1911, the Secretary of State has consistently required handwritten signatures to verify the match with a Washington registered voter,” according to the legal challenge. “The Secretary of State requires handwritten signatures to maintain the integrity of the signature-gathering process and to ensure that signatures can be validated against signatures of registered voters in voter registration files.”

The filing, made by the state Attorney General’s Office on behalf of Wyman, states that Wyman was asked by one group seeking to qualify an initiative if it could submit electronic signatures.

Advertising

Wyman’s legal challenge names a series of initiative sponsors as defendants or interested parties.

As of Friday, there were “currently 67 proposed initiatives to the Legislature that have been assigned a number and not been withdrawn,” according to the filing.

Those proposed initiatives include I-1234, which would expand prohibitions on discrimination by state and local government to public safety and public health, and I-1114, which would restrict a governor’s emergency powers.

If enough valid signatures are gathered, initiatives to the Legislature first go to state lawmakers. Those legislators can approve the initiative — which avoids it going to a statewide vote — offer an alternative version, or take no action.

If legislators take no action, the initiative then goes to the voters in a statewide election. If lawmakers approve an alternate version, both versions would go before voters.

The deadline for those Initiatives to the Legislature is Dec. 31, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.