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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: Once again, no state measures qualify for ballot

A Lincoln County ballot drop box in Harrington, Wash., is pictured in 2022.  (Jonathan Brunt/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

For the fifth year in a row, Washington voters will not have a chance to enact a law in place of the Legislature. There will be no people’s initiatives on the top of the November ballot.

Voters also will not be asked whether they approve of a bill the Legislature passed. Despite efforts to overturn one of the session’s most controversial laws, there will be no referendum measures on the ballot, either.

Referendum 101, the one serious signature gathering effort this year, was aimed at having voters reject Senate Bill 5599, which some feared would result in youth receiving certain health care like abortion or gender-affirming care without parental notification.

The campaign didn’t turn in signatures by the July 20 deadline. Sponsor Dawn Land told supporters on the campaign website they had gathered more than 157,000 signatures, which was shy of the minimum requirement of 176,226 signatures and well short of the cushion of an extra 20,000 or so above the minimum most campaigns seek to assure certification.

Land complained of signature gatherers facing “harassment, intimidation and threats.” In a July 18 letter to Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, West Side political commentator Brandi Kruse said she witnessed that kind of activity on several occasions as a volunteer signature gatherer.

“Our democracy depends on all voters having their voices heard,” Kruse wrote, adding it was Hobbs’ “fundamental duty to protect the sanctity of our elections.”

Hobbs agreed in a response on July 20 that laws that protect the elections process “must be dutifully enforced” but noted his office doesn’t have the authority to investigate complaints or enforce criminal statutes. That’s up to local law enforcement, he added.

On July 20, 56 legislative Republicans signed a separate letter to Hobbs and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, citing the incidents described by Kruse’s letter and asking Ferguson for an investigation.

A response to the GOP legislators’ letter is in the works, Brionna Aho, a spokeswoman for Ferguson’s office said Friday.

Reports of harassment during the signature-gathering process have increased in recent years. There’s clearly a set of conflicting rights of political speech between supporters seeking to urge voters to sign and opponents urging them not to.

But intimidating people to keep them from signing or gathering like Kruse recounts shouldn’t be tolerated. Neither should harassing people into signing, as has been reported of some paid gatherers in the past.

Ballot measures by the numbers

The five-year hiatus in Washington voter initiatives, one of the most popular populist tools of both liberals and conservatives, is the longest in nearly a century. It’s also a record drought since initiatives became a yearly thing, not relegated to the even numbered years in which Washington has no state general elections.

Some years, as many as a half-dozen initiatives filled the top of the state ballot, pushing down the names of would-be presidents, senators or governors.

Referendum measures are less common. The Legislature sometimes goes nearly a decade without passing a law that angers some group enough to file a petition to have it rejected, and about half the time they don’t find enough people similarly peeved to get sufficient signatures.

As in recent years, the lack of people’s initiatives on the ballot has not coincided with fewer petitions being filed. A total of 371 petitions – a near record for a five-year period – were filed since 2019, without a single one gathering the required signatures to make the ballot.

That total is second only to the 398 petitions filed between 2012 and 2016, but in that five-election span, nine initiatives made it to the ballot, and eight were approved.

Those large numbers of petition filings don’t signal a flood of well-thought out proposals to improve Washington from a wide range of citizens around the state. Of the 70 petitions filed this year, 63 were from initiative entrepreneur Tim Eyman. Of those, 26 were some form of tax limitation and 10 attempted to revive the issue that gave Eyman his start, a requirement to limit vehicle license tabs to $30.

Eyman’s most recent tax and tab initiatives have a habit of crashing and burning at the state Supreme Court. As a sign that he has his finger to the wind of conservative populist politics, however, he also proposed initiatives on protecting gun rights, keeping noncitizens from voting and “saving family farms” by eliminating the estate tax on everybody who dies after the initiative passes.

Eyman tends to file multiple versions of the same initiative idea in quick succession, sometimes resulting in a staccato burst of petitioning. On Jan. 10, which was the first day to file petitions for people’s initiatives, he filed 15 petitions, many of them slight variations on the same idea, some separated by only three minutes.

Only four other people filed proposals that were awarded a number. None of those proposals submitted signatures earlier this month to have a chance to make the ballot.

By mid-March, Eyman abandoned his efforts to put a measure on this year’s ballot and switched several of his tax and tab limitation efforts to possible initiatives to the Legislature. It’s a slightly more complicated process with the same signature requirements – slightly less than 325,000 valid voters over 10 months – but sends the proposal first to legislators who have the option of passing it or sending it to the ballot by ignoring it or passing an alternative.

So far, 126 proposed initiatives to the Legislature have been filed, nearly half by Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, a long-time Eyman ally who has adopted the strategy of filing multiple versions of the same idea, sometimes mere minutes apart.

It’s not clear whether the Populists who pushed for the process as a check on the Legislature back at the turn of the last century envisioned a legislator sponsoring initiatives to the Legislature that he can’t get through the regular legislative process.