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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Some politicians trust the voters only so far

The progression of thought for some politicians about the wisdom of the voters can be as predictable as it is ironic.

At the end of the first campaign, most winners are honored – and sometimes pleasantly surprised – at being chosen by voters. It is the rare first victory speech that doesn’t include the phrase “humbled by the trust the people have placed in me”, or words to that effect.

Over time and subsequent victories, that evolves for many into the certitude that the voters are making the wise decision. Later, some decide that voters smart enough to elect them aren’t smart enough to make other decisions that might be laid before them.

The journey goes from “Let the Voters Decide!” to “What do they know?”

City Council members seem dangerously down this road. . .

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. . .  looking for ways to keep charter amendments off the ballot for fear that benign-sounding measures will hoodwink the citizens into voting yes, when they ought to vote no.

They are considering a legal challenge to the latest iteration of the Community Bill of Rights and a campaign finance restriction called Spokane Moves to Amend. An outside lawyer and the city’s own legal staff have suggested both are so problematic as to be challenged in court now and possibly barred from the November ballot.

Such pre-emptive strikes are often defended with the theory that some measures are so harmful that they must be annihilated as early as possible, spraying judicial Roundup as the green shoot of a political bindweed pokes through the fertile garden of civilized society before the city is hopelessly entangled in the litigation.

In trying to keep such decisions away from voters, city leaders could be emulating the Founding Fathers, but probably not in a way that is most flattering. The “Dads” didn’t much trust the average voter, either. Certainly not women, and generally speaking not men who weren’t white and owned property. They didn’t let “the people” pick the members of the upper chamber of Congress, the president or the federal judiciary. The idea of legislation dreamed up by the people going on the ballot would have caused some to flip their powdered wigs.

American political thought evolved since then, particularly in the West where we have this annoying habit of putting all manner of things on the ballot when our elected representatives don’t address them in a satisfying manner.

Some pass but turn out to be unconstitutional and the courts throw them out. The Legislature, with all its resources, doesn’t bat 1.000 on its laws, either. Some of their greatest hits get bounced by the courts, too.

If the city lawyers are right, discerning November voters – who also will choose nearly half of the City Council – should be able to grasp their arguments and fill in the “No” ovals on the ballot.

Attorneys for Envision Spokane counter the laws are not at all clear cut and the courts could uphold the initiatives against any challenges. Such challenges can be expensive, but city leaders who don’t want to defend these measures might just ask the Envision Spokane hired guns to defend them pro bono should they pass and get challenged.

Council members of a Christian persuasion might want to reread the Gospel of Matthew for the parable of weeds sewn among the wheat, in which the master tells his servants not to pull out the one for fear of damaging the other. Better, he says, to let the two grow together until harvest, when the good and the bad will be easily separated. Hint: In this analogy, the harvesters are the voters.

They also might ponder why city voters keep signing the Envision Spokane petitions to put the Community Bill of Rights amendment on the ballot? Surely they can’t all be those ill-informed folks who vote for your opponents.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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