November 9, 1997 in Nation/World

Voters To Initiatives: No! Special Interests, Hired Hands Have Turned Electorate Against System, Experts Say

By The Spokesman-Review

More than $10 million was spent this year on initiatives regarding gums, guns, gays, grass and, well, the provision of services by designated health-care providers.

Voters didn’t bite on any of it, shooting down all five initiatives on Tuesday’s ballot.

The results have some experts questioning whether Washington’s initiative process still works.

More money was raised to fight the initiatives than to pass them. Only supporters of the gay-rights and drug measures raised more money than opponents.

All that money bought petition signatures and TV ads that showed people cowering in their dental chairs or being accosted for not having a gun license.

“The campaigns were very dumb,” said Ralph Munro, secretary of state and the state’s chief election official. “If you had a brain bigger than a pea, you didn’t like any of them at all.”

Voters rejected an initiative that would allow people to keep their doctors if they switched insurance plans. They just said no to medicalizing Schedule 1 drugs and freeing people convicted of minor drug crimes.

They refused to forbid discrimination against gays and lesbians. They wouldn’t let dental hygienists practice without dentists supervising them.

And they blew away a proposal to require trigger locks on handguns.

The initiatives failed this year because they were overly sweeping, vague and the products of special interests, many experts said. They were fueled by out-of-state money and hired help gathering petition signatures.

“These guys aren’t building any campaigns at all,” Munro said. “They’re buying the ballot, and it’s not working.”

For 85 years, Washington residents have had the power to put initiatives on the ballot by gathering signatures. About 180,000 signatures are required now.

The initiative process is a ma-and-pa way of sidestepping the Legislature and giving the power to the people.

“It’s not an unlimited power,” said Blaine Garvin, professor of political science at Gonzaga University. “It’s just a question of whether or not it’s a wise power. I’ve got some doubts about that.”

Initiatives once were the products of grass-roots campaigns and volunteers who pounded the pavement for such broad-based causes as minimum-wage hikes, experts said.

“If the idea wasn’t a good one, the grass roots wouldn’t be able to come up with volunteers, or people would flat out refuse to sign,” said Liz Pierini, president of the League of Women Voters of Washington.

Campaigns now pay people and companies to gather the signatures. That’s how voters get initiatives about denturists making dentures.

That measure passed in 1994. It was the last time voters supported an initiative that hired signature gatherers.

In the past 10 years, voters have considered 27 initiatives and rejected 18 of them.

The voters approved initiatives that increased the minimum wage, limited political terms, restricted state spending and prohibited bear baiting.

They also said yes to a three-strikes-and-you’re-out law and a hazardous-waste cleanup program. Voters limited late-term abortions and campaign contributions. They also said denturists could make dentures on their own, despite dentists’ objections.

But this year the voters balked. One major reason may be the trigger-lock initiative.

Gun initiative supporters raised $1.1 million. But opponents raised about $3.4 million, including more than $1 million from the National Rifle Association. Opponents also pulled in big names, such as actor Charlton Heston.

Some people say that initiative alone drew thousands of naysayers to the polls.

“The heavy, heavy influence of the people who got out for the handgun safety issue … just turned the entire election sour on every other issue,” Pierini said.

Each initiative had some problems, experts said.

The drug measure included too many drugs for most voters’ tastes, rather than just aiming to provide marijuana to those in pain.

The health-policy initiative was not only confusing but possibly a bait-and-switch, barely mentioning chiropractors, the measure’s main supporters, Munro said.

Many voters already believe gays have equal rights under the law, experts said.

The trigger-lock initiative was poorly drafted, and also required eight hours of training that many people thought was excessive, Munro said. “I’m not sure what you teach about a .22 pistol after the first two hours.”

And the dental hygienist initiative drew heavy flak from dentists.

While some experts would like a return to the grass-roots initiatives of the past, paid signature gatherers are a fact of Washington life. A federal judge ruled that workers can be paid by the signature.

Even the League of Women Voters, long a bastion of grass-roots campaigns and adamantly opposed to using paid signature-gatherers, relented this year.

When told that the pro-trigger lock forces were paying for signatures, the league decided to still allow its members to volunteer to collect additional signatures to get the measure on the ballot.

Pierini said the league will be talking about initiatives next week and considering possible legislation to change the system.

“The truth in advertising is long gone,” she said. “Ethics in campaigning is long gone. So what does the voter have? The small print in the voters’ pamphlet?”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: A waste of time - and money

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