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Sue Lani Madsen: Initiatives – live grass or artificial turf

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The grassroots origin of the 1912 initiative and referendum process has been invaded by noxious weeds.

Although the Direct Legislation League would still recognize what they championed, special interest influence has replaced the broad public engagement they envisioned. Two recent developments have changed the dynamics: paying for signatures and shifting demographics.

Washington banned paid signature-gatherers from the beginning, recognizing the potential for undue influence by wealthy individuals, organizations and corporations who could buy their pet issue a place on the ballot.

That changed in 1988 when a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated the ban. Although petitions are still circulated through grassroots organizations, that’s not where the action is.

Paid signature-gathering, combined with the growing urban/rural demographic imbalance, has replaced the broad public support envisioned by the populist proponents of direct legislation. It is no longer necessary to run a statewide petition drive. Eastern Washington sees grassroots organizers, but Western Washington gets most of the pros.

The difference became obvious at a Puget Sound ferry terminal more than a decade ago. It was the height of a petition drive for one of those progressive initiatives that makes Seattle infamous on the conservative East Side. Signature-gatherers with clipboards approached each car. Their targets had no escape.

Washington State Ferry system traffic over just three days of the Memorial Day weekend in 2018 was more than half a million. The bounty hunters at the ferry terminal didn’t need a high daily success rate to hit their goal.

The minimum number of signatures is 8 percent of the actual voters in the last gubernatorial election. Until 2020, that means 259,622 valid signatures.

There were 314,084 ballots mailed out for the August 2018 primary in Spokane County. King County alone has roughly 1.2 million registered voters. It’s a better return on investment to hang out at the ferry docks, transit parking lots and shopping malls around Puget Sound. If you’re paying hunters, you want them where the prey is.

Initiatives are inherently sloppy lawmaking. Asked recently whether she would support I-1631, the progressively fashionable carbon tax, former state Senate majority leader and congressional candidate Lisa Brown cautioned that “in general, initiatives are flawed and usually have to be fixed. It’s much better to go through a legislative process.”

She confirmed she’d be voting no.

A bipartisan legislative process done right will be balanced, addressing the nuances of complex issues but requiring compromise. It has the advantage of allowing all stakeholders to be heard. It has the disadvantage of leaving everyone just a little unhappy. No one ever formed an initiative committee by inviting all points of view to contribute their perspective.

While the Legislature has been struggling with how to address police use-of-force policies, impatience with slow progress in Olympia erupted into I-940. According to law enforcement organizations, the proposed initiative creates division where there can continue to be work on bipartisan legislation. The voters of the “exhausted majority,” a term coined by David Brooks to describe the two-thirds of voters hovering on each side of the middle, will be the ones to decide if they really mean it when they ask for less fighting and more bipartisan heavy lifting.

Then there are the two examples of wealthy individuals and corporations buying a place on the ballot. I-1639 is a mishmash of new gun control laws. I-1634 is a classic no-new-taxes initiative.

Glen Morgan, community activist, challenged the ballot title for I-1639 as written by Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s staff. Morgan calls it the “billionaire’s anti-gun initiative,” a catchy description but not ballot-worthy. Nick Hanauer and the late Paul Allen each contributed $1 million to pay for the signatures. On the corporate side, big beverage companies backed I-1634 to quarantine Seattle’s sugary beverage tax as a bad idea before it spreads statewide.

The Direct Legislation League was right about wealthy individuals and corporations. But it’s not all about money. While the grassroots may be left out of signature gathering, they still matter when it comes time to vote. Check the “Written By” paragraph at the end of the For and Against statements in the Voter’s Pamphlet. See which initiatives built a coalition you trust.

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