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Spin Control: Is it true democracy if it takes millions to get an initiative on the ballot?

OLYMPIA – An employee of a signature-gathering company, who refused to give his name to reporters, wheels boxes of signed petitions for Initiative 1639into the Washington Secretary of State elections office. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – An employee of a signature-gathering company, who refused to give his name to reporters, wheels boxes of signed petitions for Initiative 1639into the Washington Secretary of State elections office. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

While it’s probably not what our Populist-Progressive forefathers intended when they came up with the initiative process, democracy at the ballot box is pretty good business.

One can argue if the initiative process, as currently practiced, is true democracy. One can also make the case that it is the kind of business that best benefits political consulting firms in Washington, D.C., and signature-gathering companies in California.

That’s who seemed to get the biggest share of big bucks dumped into efforts to bypass the Legislature and let voters decide some laws. Reports filed recently with the Public Disclosure Commission show that some groups spent millions to get their ideas on the November ballot.

Safe Schools Safe Communities, sponsor of Initiative 1639, which would tighten rules around the sale and ownership of semi-automatic rifles and require stricter gun storage, spent nearly $2.8 million to gather signatures.

The group dropped off about 360,000 signatures earlier this month, which comes out to about $7.77 per John Hancock, mostly paid to AAP Holding Co. of Westlake, California.

The carbonated beverage industry also turned to AAP to get the signatures for Initiative 1634, which would prevent local governments from imposing taxes on soda (and also groceries, although no local government has suggested taxing groceries). Actually, the Yes to Affordable Groceries organization hired the Dewey Square Group – a Washington, D.C., public affairs group whose motto is “Win Public Support” – and they hired AAP, which was paid more than $2.5 million to gather signatures for I-1634. So that would be a win-win, for the political industry at least.

AAP also gathered the bulk of the paid signatures for the carbon fee being proposed in Initiative 1631. It got most of the $832,000 paid out by Clean Air Clean Energy, although a Seattle firm did pick up $30,000 for “signature gathering consulting.” That may be a new profession for college graduates to consider if their chosen field isn’t hiring. You wouldn’t have to actually go get the signatures, just consult with campaigns on where they might be gotten.

Signature gathering companies don’t keep all that money, of course. They pay contractors who pay subcontractors who stand in front of supermarkets or set up tables at political rallies or wander through community events, clipboards in hand. Many of them have copies of many different ballot proposals, so a person who balks at a government-imposed carbon fee to clean up the environment might be a good candidate to sign the latest Tim Eyman initiative, an oldie but goodie on $30 license tabs.

Some of the money actually trickles down to Washington folks holding clipboards, although some signature gatherers work a circuit that takes them from state to state based on filing deadlines, sort of like itinerant farm workers following a harvest of signatures.

Citizen Solutions, a Washington signature-gathering company, has collected $300,000 so far for the Eyman proposal, which has a December deadline. It also got some $380,000 from business interests that think state and local governments should negotiate with their employee unions in public, but that initiative didn’t come close to getting the necessary signatures. Was it just not popular, or didn’t they spend enough?

At the risk of sounding old, time was when $380,000 could buy you a spot on the ballot. Initiative 1000, concerning assisted suicide, made the ballot in 2008 for less than that. What is the world coming to?

Another Golden State firm made bank off the signatures gathered last year for Initiative 940, which was sent to the Legislature this year. De-Escalate Washington paid out more than $1 million, most of it to PCI Consultants, Inc., of Calabasas, California, to qualify a proposal involving police use of deadly force. The Legislature passed that initiative, but not before changing it, so the courts may order it to go on the November ballot, too.

An Arizona company, Morning in America, got nearly $334,000 to gather signatures for a Seattle ballot measure that would have repealed the “head tax” on workers at large companies in that city. The businesses that ponied up that money probably consider it well spent, considering they got so many signatures so fast that the Seattle City Council backed off the tax.

But that brings up an interesting question: If the tax were really that unpopular, couldn’t they have had a similar result with a volunteer effort and avoid any question of “pay for play”?

The initiative process was designed as a way for the people to rise up when their legislators weren’t listening to them, and enact laws that their lawmakers wouldn’t. It has become a process for well-heeled organizations – businesses, unions or special interest groups – to pay big guns to hire smaller guns to get their ideas on the ballot.

That’s an odd way to practice democracy.


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