The first citizen initiative to pass in Washington was in 1914 and called for a statewide ban on liquor.
Washington voters have been intoxicated on the process ever since.
This year, 36 potential initiatives were filed with the secretary of state’s office, although most were only an idea coupled with a $5 filing fee. About five are likely to qualify for the statewide ballot in November by collecting about 198,000 valid voter signatures by last Friday’s deadline.
Washingtonians have a love-hate relationship with the initiative process. Supporters see it as a way for the wisdom of the common man to beat corrupt politics. Opponents see it as mob rule by tax-hating cheapskates and interest groups hungry to cut themselves a slice of the state’s budget.
Many voters like their direct access to the ballot.
“It gives us a chance to have our say,” said Brenda Nelson of Spokane, as she signed a petition outside a Lowe’s hardware store in Spokane. “I make sure I know what I’m signing before I sign it.”
That’s a good idea, because one of the criticisms is that initiative backers use clever marketing and misleading names to win petition signatures and votes.
Lori Atherton of Spokane moved here from California, where initiatives have long been a popular way to reduce taxes.
She carefully studies the language on the ballot when deciding how to vote. She figures she’ll vote for Initiative 892, which seeks to dramatically expand slot machine gambling and use the tax revenue to reduce property taxes.
“Since I never gamble, I’m for it,” she said, neatly summing up the logic that explains why initiatives are loved or loathed by so many people.
But there are those who believe the business of making laws should be left to elected representatives.
“I honestly think government should be left up to those in government,” said Danielle Cendejas while attending a recent Rock The Vote rally in Spokane. “If you trust those people with your vote, we can trust them to do their jobs representing our views.”
The initiative was added to the Washington Constitution in 1912 as part of a nationwide movement of political reform when progressives were looking to break the stranglehold that big business had on legislatures.
Through 2003, there had been more than 850 initiatives to the people filed in Washington, with 119 qualifying for the ballot. Of those, 60 had been approved and 59 rejected.
Once seen as expressions of the people’s will, many initiatives these days are backed by the same well-heeled interests that support political candidates. Getting an initiative on the ballot can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“There are years where you can go up and down the West Coast and not find a single measure on the ballot that is grass-roots,” said Todd Donovan, a political scientist at Western Washington University.
The gambling initiative, an idea that failed in the Legislature, is a poster child for what critics say is wrong with the process.
Indian tribes, who stand to suffer from increased competition, are pouring huge sums into defeating the measure. Non-Indian casino owners, who stand to benefit, hired initiative master Tim Eyman to front their campaign and focus on the property tax benefits.
“It’s an opportunity to reduce taxes without costing government a penny,” Eyman said. “This is the most unique tax cut we have offered because it is impossible for the government to lose money.”
But Rollin Fatland, spokesman for the No on I-892 committee, said Eyman has bought his way onto the ballot with a proposal that “represents the most massive expansion of gambling in the history of Washington state.”
Critics blast the measure’s name, “Just Treat Us The Same.” They complain about the tactics of paid signature gatherers, who mention only the property tax cut when they stop people.
“Sign a petition and lower your property taxes,” signature gatherer Carmine Alessandro told one passing man outside a Home Depot in Spokane recently.
At the other end of the initiative spectrum is I-884, proposed by the League of Education Voters, which seeks to raise the sales tax one penny to fund a variety of education improvements. Natalie Reber, a spokeswoman for the league, said it is a grass-roots effort that combines parent groups and PTAs with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who kicked $150,000 into the campaign.
Also expected to make the ballot is I-872, which would create a primary system that doesn’t force people to choose a party; and I-890, which would ban smoking in all public, indoor places. Eyman has conceded that Initiative 864, which would slash property taxes, will not qualify.
One initiative is already guaranteed a spot on the ballot: I-297 would block the federal government from sending radioactive waste from other states to Hanford until all the existing waste there is cleaned up. It was an initiative to the Legislature, and the Legislature didn’t act on it, which means it automatically gets a public vote.
Eyman is credited with reinvigorating the process with his I-695 in 2000, which mandated $30 license tab fees. The popular measure was approved by voters, even as critics warned it would knock a big hole in government revenues.
He followed with several more tax-cutting measures. While they passed handily, he became a whipping boy for those who say he is destroying the state’s budget.
Of the 24 states with the initiative process, California, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona and Washington are the main users, Donovan said.
“In every one of those states you can find a Tim Eyman-like person,” Donovan said. “If not Eyman, someone else would have come along.”
Eyman contends initiatives represent “truth in advertising” not found in legislative politics, where a politician may not do what he promises once in office.
Initiatives have been used in the past to clean up toxic wastes, raise the minimum wage and advocate land use planning and recycling.
But initiative critic David Goldstein of Seattle believes the process has been highjacked by anti-tax zealots and special interests who use it to push proposals they cannot get from the Legislature. The initiative process can be cheaper and more certain than lobbying the Legislature, where many ideas die in committee.
Goldstein would like the state to ban paid petition gatherers, who can make more than $1 per signature and thus have an incentive to produce bogus signatures or attempt to deceive people by masking the true aim of the measure. He would also reduce the number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.
Various attempts to limit paid signature-gathering in the past have been tossed out by the courts.
Laura McClintock recently opened a western office of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a think tank, in Seattle. The Washington, D.C.-based center was founded in 1998 to track initiatives and advance progressive issues through the process.
Special interests, deceptive campaigns and goofy proposals are all part of the process, she said. It is up to voters to become educated on the measures.
“Voters have every right to be skeptical and cautious and to decline to lend support,” McClintock said. “You don’t have to sign a petition.”
“We’ve got to prove that voters are smart,” she said.