High court to decide fate of gun control ballot measure

  • Wednesday, August 22, 2018 3:19pm
  • Opinion

The fate of a sweeping gun control ballot measure is in the hands of the state Supreme Court, and everything should work out fine for its supporters.

Roughly 378,000 voters signed petitions for Initiative 1639, which would do such things as raise the age to buy a semiautomatic rifle and impose new restrictions on storing of firearms.

But one Thurston County Superior Court judge stunned them Aug. 17 by ordering the measure be kept off the November ballot because he said those petitions didn’t comply precisely with the law.

Naturally, attorneys for the measure’s sponsor, Alliance for Gun Responsibility, appealed and a hearing in front of the Supreme Court is penciled in for Aug. 28.

You should know justices really don’t like to mess with initiatives before voters get a crack at them. Their tendency is to not impede use of this tool of populist protest, which got chiseled into the state constitution in 1911.

In the past, the Supreme Court repelled pre-election challenges and allowed measures onto ballots in spite of problematic petitions, less-than-perfect signature counts and elements later found to be unconstitutional.

Hence, it should not be a huge surprise if a majority of the current court decides to put Initiative 1639 back on the ballot then revisit a major thrust of opponents arguments after the election.

That is, where does strict compliance end and substantial compliance begin regarding petitions? Said another way, how close is close enough to comply with the law?

The statute is pretty easy to understand. It says initiative petitions must contain a “readable, full, true and correct copy of the proposed measure.”

With Initiative 1639, all the words are there, sponsors said.

In their suit, gun rights activist Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation and the NRA say those words are not readable because the font size is too small. Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon agreed, even commenting that in spite of his 20-20 vision he couldn’t read the text.

But this is not the first time text requiring the use of a magnifier to read has appeared on initiative petitions.

Attorneys for Initiative 1639, in a legal brief filed Monday, contend a similar font size was used for several recent measures, including ones dealing with liquor privatization and carbon emissions fees. They note the law doesn’t specify a font size and they shouldn’t be penalized for using one that’s been used before without challenge.

Then there’s the matter of whether all those words in really small print are a “full, true and correct” copy of the proposal?

The proposed additions to state law were not underlined nor were subtractions lined out, which would have been a tremendous help for signers to understand what actual changes were being proposed.

Lawyers for the opponents argued the lack of such devices was grounds for invalidating the petitions. They argue signers couldn’t know exactly what parts were the full, true and correct portions.

Alliance attorneys contend the omission did not affect voters’ ability to understand the measure, pointing out that while such “amendatory formatting may have specific meaning to lawyers and judges, it does not necessarily have any inherent meaning to average voters.”

Justices are going to be asked to weigh in on these matters next week, but they may not provide any answers until after voters have spoken.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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