Why the online petition to remove Kshama Sawant won’t go anywhere

Feb 24, 2017, 6:28 AM | Updated: 10:50 am

Kshama Sawant, women's day rally, May Day...

Kshama Sawant says the rally and march she is participating in will be peaceful. (KIRO 7)

(KIRO 7)

An online petition aimed at knocking Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant out of her elected position has grabbed people’s attention, but that is about all it can do.

“Online petitions have no legal validity when it comes to recalls,” said Nick Katers with Ballotpedia, a website specializing in American politics and elections.

“You couldn’t just print this off and bring it in and use it,” he said. “There’s a very formal process. Washington has multiple steps. There’s a lot of checkpoints along the way.”

Related: Sawant’s call for the next round of protests and demonstrations

The online petition to remove Sawant from office had nearly reached its 25,000 signature goal on Feb. 24. It’s not the first time a petition like this has targeted the council member, though it is the first petition to garner considerable participation.

The petition states:

Kshama Sawant is not respecting the will of the people. She’s using her platform to incite violence and call for protests and riots … Let’s send a message to our local Mayor that she should step down from her position or be impeached. It is not appropriate for elected officials to call for protests.

The online petition alleges that Sawant is violating U.S. law in regard to “inciting insurrection or rebellion” when she calls for protests. Sawant has called for a “wall of mass resistance” to the Trump administration and has promoted protests as a means of doing that. Her next target for demonstrations is May Day. The petition organizers argue that Sawant is, therefore, violating her oath to support the Constitution of the United States and is not fit for office.

It is our, the petitioner’s, request that Ms. Kshama Sawant be removed from the office of City Council.

Online petition and the process

Allegations aside, there’s one argument that the petitioners are most likely missing — a legal argument. The petition is targeted, yet somewhat vague in terms of what it can actually do. The “target” listed on the petition is Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. The goal is for Sawant to step down or to be impeached. There’s no mention of a recall, however, which is the process for removing a local elected official from office by collecting enough signatures on a petition.

Katers notes that there is a specific process for recalls. First, the petitioner would have to bring their argument to the King County Auditor, who would pass it by a judge to see if any claims are valid. Claims could range from malfeasance to abuse of power. If approved, a petitioner has to get valid voters to physically sign a petition — in person. Who is a valid voter? People from Sawant’s District 3 in Seattle.

If they get enough signatures to equal 25 percent of the total votes cast in the last election, they can begin a recall. But the required number of signatures to recall Sawant is not 25,000 — the goal of the online petition. Katers did the math and it comes out to roughly 7,600. Yet, there’s no way to prove the online signers are from District 3, Seattle, or even Washington.

“It’s not really difficult for somebody to sign their name and put their address, or a different address or a fake name,” Katers said. “It’s just not a process that is verifiable in a way that would satisfy legal requirements.”

“There’s a low bar to get over when it comes to online petitions,” Katers said. “If you look at the comments on this petition, some say just Washington. But you also see Florida, Hawaii, California.”

Not to mention Virginia, Oregon and Michigan — all listed as locations of signers on the petition.

“This is discontent — by some people who don’t even live in Seattle — of a councilwoman,” Katers said. “Assigning a weight to this in terms of discontent with her is problematic.”

So what good is an online petition?

“It’s a PR move,” Katers said. “They mobilize people who agree on the same issues around flash points. Councilwoman Sawant is a Socialist. She is polarizing … It’s a really, really easy thing to sign an online petition. There’s really no stake in it. You just sign it and it’s just out there. It is a mobilizing tool for people who disagree with her.”

Katers notes a similar incident with Republican Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas. On the opposite end of the political spectrum than Sawant, Brownback has been controversial in his own way. Many online petitions have been started to remove him from his position — he’s still in office.

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Why the online petition to remove Kshama Sawant won’t go anywhere