Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Sunday Spin: An initiative record, by the numbers

OLYMPIA – Washington voters won’t have a record number of initiatives on the ballot this November, but that’s not for a lack of interest by people who like to use the process to flog their favorite ideas.

The state did set a record for the number of initiative proposals filed with the Secretary of State – 137 that hung around long enough to be issued numbers, plus 18 that were filed but weren’t issued a number before the sponsor said “never mind.”

Of that total, more than half – 87 to be exact – came from the initiative factory that is Tim Eyman, of Mukilteo, and the Spokane father-and-son team of Jack Fagan and Mike Fagan, the latter also known to residents of the city’s northeast District 1 as their senior councilman.

The initiatives from Eyman & Co. mined the panoply of populist ideas that might some day comprise their “greatest hits” album. Restrictions on tolls and taxes, super majorities to raise taxes, limits on cameras that catch red light runners, and the God-given right of Washingtonians to pay no more than $30 for their car tabs. That last one is so ingrained in some voters’ psyche they seem to believe it was on the stone tablets Moses brought down from the mountain, but left out of the Old Testament because the Israelites didn’t know what the heck Washingtonians were.

Most topics had multiple initiatives filed in a process that is common, but not unique, to Eyman et al. Rather than concentrate on one ballot measure with well-crafted legal language, certain sponsors file multiple versions, hoping one will pass muster with state officials who must review the submissions and essentially dispense free legal advice. Sometimes sponsors file so many versions with the same basic title they must be numbered to be kept straight. 

Despite their unflagging initiative in filing ballot measures, the dynamic trio did not come up with a proposal for which they felt the need to spend significant time or money collecting signatures. 

Supporters need not worry greatly, however. Eyman, Fagan & Fagan are shifting their attention this year to an initiative to the Legislature, which is a process more active in the second half of the year, rather than an initiative to the people, which had to submit signatures by last Friday. It’s called “We Love Our Cars,” a title it shares with nine of his initiatives to the people which were filed and later withdrawn after receiving official numbers. If that doesn’t make it, there’s always next year.

The state does not “reuse” ballot numbers; once issued they are retired even if the initiative never develops beyond the ruminations of an irate legislator or political gadfly. We are running through them at an ever-quickening pace.

Between 1914 and 1964, the first 50 years after the populist-progressives added ballot initiatives as a citizen workaround for unresponsive lawmakers, 215 were filed, an average of about four a year. 

The numbers steadily increased in the 1980s and 1990s, but by the end of the century, the total number filed was still in the triple digits, 709. During the first 85 years of initiatives, an average of slightly more than eight per year were filed.

Between 2000 and 2016, the numbered initiatives more than doubled, so that the final designation issued this year was 1542. In the 21st Century, Washingtonians are filing an average of 49 initiatives to the people a year.

That hasn’t resulted in a corresponding increase in the number of initiatives collecting enough signatures to be on the the ballot. Six accomplished that in 2000 and 2010, one less than the high-water mark in the first year when Washingtonians were delighting in their new freedom. Other years, there were never more than three. 

The people who championed this form of participatory democracy might be surprised that the number of measures making the ballot hasn’t kept pace with the number of proposals filed. In that first year, 18 initiatives were filed and seven went to the ballot. Of the 137 filed this year, only four bothered to turn in signatures by Friday’s deadline. All have a substantial cushion beyond the 246,372 valid signatures needed and will likely be on the ballot.

They will join the the two initiatives to the Legislature already on the ballot because lawmakers ignored them, so the total falls one shy of the 1914 record. 

The people who gave the state the initiative process 102 years ago were wary of big business, big unions and big political machines. They probably never counted on initiatives becoming a business rather than a spontaneous uprising of public sentiment, an occupation for perennial sponsors or as a cash cow for companies charging to collect signatures. 

While almost everything else has changed about the initiative process, one thing has not. Filing one costs $5, just as it did in 1914. Efforts to adjust it for inflation have brought howls of protest from the initiative industry. Perhaps the Legislature should consider a change that keeps the first initiative a sponsor files $5, but doubles and redoubles the price for each successive initiative from that organization on the same topic.

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.

Follow Jim online: