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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Legislature could abolish advisory votes this session

A voter casts her ballot on Oct. 22, 2018 at the downtown Spokane Public Library. The Legislature is considering a proposal to withdraw advisory votes from the ballot.  (Libby Kamrowski)
By Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Advisory votes may be disappearing from November ballots, if a proposal passes the Legislature this session.

The Senate State Government and Elections Committee on Tuesday heard public testimony about a bill that would eliminate advisory votes on Washington state ballots, replacing them with information on the state’s spending in the voters’ pamphlets.

Under current law, advisory votes require any tax increase to appear on ballots and voters’ pamphlets in the election after the Legislature implemented them. The results of advisory votes are non-binding, so the Legislature is not obligated to follow them.

This proposed bill, sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, and Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, would repeal the requirement for such advisory votes.

“They cause confusion and frustration among voters and they unnecessarily increase the workload for already hardworking election officials,” Kuderer said. “It’s time to end this failed experiment, and replace them with access to accurate information about where the tax dollars go.”

Advisory votes were first established in Washington in 2007 in a Tim Eyman initiative. Washington is the only state to include advisory votes on ballots. The idea was that voters could hold their legislators accountable and have an available area to express their opinions on government spending.

In lieu of advisory votes, the bill would require a summary of the Legislature’s spending for the previous two years presented in the form of a pie chart, segmented by areas of government. The bill would also require the Office of Fiscal Management to publish an online statement including information about legislation affecting state revenue. The fiscal impact statement would be accessible online via a QR code in voters’ pamphlets.

Proponents of this bill said this information would make voting easier and be more meaningful than advisory votes.

“They are essentially taxpayer-funded, biased push polls that are designed with one outcome in mind, and that is to instill distrust in government,” Kuderer said.

Currently, the results of an advisory vote do not affect legislation, but give voters a chance to express their opinion on tax increases. Supporters view them as a way to hold legislators accountable, despite not having any direct effect on legislation.

“At the end of the day, people still want to have their opinions recorded, so if you want better data, allow there to be better data, that’s pretty simple,” said Aaron Lang, a citizen. “But taking this mechanism away for our opinions to be formally recorded, it’s very important.”

Jeff Pack, representing Washington Citizens against Unfair Taxes, said the purpose of advisory votes is to ensure transparency in government spending. By casting an advisory vote, voters can voice their opinions to their legislators.

“This advisory system does one purpose: It puts your actions right in every voter’s face, and tells you exactly how we feel about your actions,” Pack said.

On the other hand, Cindy Black, executive director of Fix Democracy First, said elected officials get more questions from voters about advisory votes than anything else on the ballot.

“This is a common sense bill that would eliminate something that is completely unnecessary and only creates confusion for voters,” Black said.

Most public testimony was in support of the bill, and several members of the public shared similar anecdotes about the confusing nature of advisory votes.

“Every time we get the ballot in the mail, my friends will ask me: ‘Carolyn, what do I do on these advisory votes?’ And I say, ‘Don’t worry, they’re meaningless,’ ” said Carolyn Brotherton with the Economic Opportunity Institute. “It throws them off anyways, and it makes them feel suspicious that the rest of the ballot might also be meaningless.”

Lawmakers are fast-tracking this bill, with the Senate State Government and Elections Committee scheduled to vote on Friday.