OLYMPIA – Washington voters appear confused about a pair of contradictory gun initiatives that will be on the November ballot and could approve both this fall, a new survey suggests.
If that happens, the courts may have to sort out initiatives 591 and 594, which deal very differently with the question of background checks for gun buyers. I-594 would expand background checks in Washington beyond the current federal standards to cover most sales. I-591 would allow background checks to be expanded only as part of a new national standard.
A survey of voters conducted last week by The Elway Poll found 72 percent said they would definitely or likely vote for I-594; 55 percent said they would definitely or likely vote for I-591. Whether they said it was more important to protect gun rights or more important to control gun sales, a majority of voters in the survey they would definitely or probably vote yes on both initiatives.
When pollsters followed up with a question about background checks, voters were almost twice as likely to say they think those checks should be more extensive than to say they should be left as they are now.
But here, too, there was confusion. Half of those who favored more extensive background checks said they would vote for I-591 and half who said background checks should be kept as they are now planned to vote for I-594.
“If you read the ballot titles, it’s pretty hard not to be confused,” pollster H. Stuart Elway said. The confusion isn’t a major concern for the two campaigns yet, because there are some six months to go before ballots are mailed out, he said.
As the election nears, however, it will be important for the campaigns to clear up the confusion for voters, Elway said. That may be more important for I-594 supporters who are suggesting the bigger change and seem to have the support of voters as a whole. Because this is an off-year election, voter turnout will probably be lower than a presidential election.
But a strong push by I-591, which has the support of such gun-rights groups as the Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, could mobilize voters who are strong supporters of the Second Amendment, Elway said: “They are more likely to be targeted, organized and motivated to go to the polls.”
If both initiatives pass, there’s no clear direction in state statutes or case law of what happens next.
Washington faced a similar situation in 2010, when two different proposals to end the state’s monopoly on liquor sales were on the ballot. At the time, state election law experts said the issue could go to the Legislature the following year, but because any immediate change in an initiative would require a two-thirds vote, it’s unlikely to be resolved there. Initiatives that pass are routinely challenged by lawsuits, so the issue would probably wind up in the courts, which have no statutes or precedents to use as guidance.
Both those liquor initiatives failed, so there’s still no precedent that would help settle any conflict from voters passing a pair of conflicting gun initiatives.