July 21, 2008 in Opinion

Our View: Despite technicality, initiative should go to voters


Another year, another election and, apparently, another lawsuit.

This time the centerpiece is an imperfectly prepared initiative that would require background checks and more training for people who provide long-term care for the elderly and disabled.

Advocates turned in more than 300,000 signatures, and the Washington secretary of state’s office has agreed to start processing them to see if enough are valid to put Initiative 1029 on the Nov. 4 ballot. Opponents contend the signatures should be tossed out over a clumsy mistake buried in the technical language above the signatures.

Although everything else about Initiative 1029 has been treated as an initiative to the people, a lengthy petitioning statement describes it (104 words into a 179-word passage) as an initiative to the Legislature.

If you’re scratching your head over what difference that makes, you probably won’t be subpoenaed to testify for the opponents.

There is a difference, though. An initiative to the people goes on the general election ballot so voters can decide whether to pass it. An initiative to the Legislature is routed through the state’s elected lawmakers, who must either enact it or put it on the following year’s general election ballot. If they take the latter course, they are allowed to draft their own alternative measure to go on the ballot, too.

With sufficient signatures, though, either pathway leads to the ballot if not outright enactment. Opponents’ argument that the secretary of state’s decision sets a “dangerous precedent” is overwrought.

Yet the language is flawed.

Let’s call time out long enough to say we’re not wild about the initiative process. We think the deliberation that occurs during a legislative session produces better law because it allows for examination, reflection and refinement. Moreover, we’re not taking a position now on I-1029.

But the initiative process is in place and has become a popular part of the state’s political structure. It’s intended to assure that the people are the final authority on public policy, and that’s a good thing.

So the question here is whether greater harm is done by tolerating technical imprecision or by ignoring the clear intent of about 300,000 Washington residents to see this measure on the ballot.

Frankly – and readers who have ever been approached by a signature-gatherer can refer to their own experience – we doubt there are a dozen of those petition signers who read past the graphic label at the top, past the “ballot title” following that, past the “ballot measure summary” and finally deeply enough into the 179-word appeal to Secretary of State Sam Reed to have noticed the difference. Or cared.

Still, the secretary of state’s office checked with the attorney general’s office, which concluded “the petitions submitted and the surrounding circumstances are sufficiently in keeping with an initiative to the people that their rejection is not warranted.”

As they say in basketball, no harm, no foul.

Lest anyone suspect partisan shenanigans are at work, I-1029 tends to be supported by Democrats and their friends in labor. It is opposed by a coalition of businesses that provide care for the aged and object to the added financial and regulatory burden – attitudes generally shared by Republicans. Both Reed and Attorney General Rob McKenna are Republicans.

No matter which way Reed’s office decided this, it was likely to produce histrionics and probably litigation. But an adequate number of voters, operating through the established process, have made it plain they want to vote on this, and in time they undoubtedly will get to. Let that debate be joined now, in the public arena where it belongs, not in the courts.

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