Washington Initiative Process not the Problem!

It seems that the in thing to do these days in Washington State is to criticize the initiative process as what is wrong. That misses the larger picture.

Over on Horsesass.org Goldy continues to pitch for so called “initiative reform” as if that will send the Tim Eyman’s and Farm Bureau’s and Evergreen Legal Foundation’s running with their tails between their legs and we’ll never see them again.

The attack on the initiative being focused on the initiative process rather than the issues and voters involvement means focusing on small details rather than viewing the larger picture. What is needed are more voters who take signing the initiative seriously. It requires that they take the time to read and understand what it is they are signing in support of before they sign.

The initiative is a legal process, written into the Washington State Constitution – a right of voters to petition either the citizens or the Legislature to enact a law to address concerns of a voter or voters. Getting voters to sign to put an initiative on the ballot is akin to getting sponsors on a bill being introduced in the Legislature. The same as sponsors of a legislative bill are saying to fellow legislators, please vote for this bill, signers of an initiative are helping those who wrote ther initiative ask voters to support their initiative.

While there is no legal requirement on the number of sponsors on a bill, the initiative process requires that at least 8% of those who voted in the last Governor’s race sign the initiative. Voters need to view their signature as being akin to being a sponsor of the initiative.

Signers of an initiative are, by signing the initiative, indicating their support for the initiative by asking that this issue be put on the ballot. Printed on all initiatives are the following words “We, the undersigned citizens and legal voters of the state of Washington, respectfully direct that the proposed measure known as Initiative …(ballot title)… a full, true, and correct copy of which is printed on the reverse side of this petition, be submitted to the legal voters of the state of Washington for their approval or rejection at the general election to be held on …”

As a result of signing, among other things, voters are asking the state to commit state tax dollars to verify that an adequate number of registered voters have signed the measure. They are asking state taxpayer dollars be used to put the measure on the ballot and to commit state and local taxpayer dollars to hold the election, count and certify the election results. By signing an initiative, whether they understood it or not, voters are committing tax dollars to aid in the passage of an initiative.

Signers, by default of signing, are also letting the sponsors of the initiative use their signature as a sign that the initiative has their support and the support of thousands of others. Signers are not just signing to put this measure on the ballot. Sponsors of an initiative use the number of signers as an indication that voters see the need for this new legislation.

The problem is that many voters do not know what they are signing because they have not read the text of the initiative on the back of the petition. Too often they believe what a paid out of state signature gatherer tells them about the measure.

While we in Washington State have to live with the law if the initiative passes, the paid signature gatherer is off in some other state collecting signatures. We wouldn’t sign to buy a used car without understanding what it is we are signing yet voters repeatedly sign measures, without reading the fine print, that can have wide ranging impacts on their daily lives. Examples this year include measures to eliminate zoning for developers and reduce tax dollars for transportation. (The sponsors of these measures say they are to prevent government from taking your property and for $30 license tabs)

The mistake that progressives and others made regarding Tim Eyman’s anti-tax initiatives was ignoring the fact that he was and is running his initiative mill year round – 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days out of the year. You can not let someone organize and work the media that way and the grassroots that long and expect to come in a month before the election and spend a few dollars and stop him.

Fighting bad initiatives and bad policy and wrong headed ideas requires year round response. It requires rebuttal. It requires vigiliance and involvement. It requires that we propose  . It requires offense as well as defense. So far progressives and Democrats and labor and good government groups and others have been playing a lot of defense, but defense at best means things stay the same, and any score by the opposition means you lose.

So it’s necessary to be active, to participate, to commit time and effort and money and go on the offense. At best so called “initiative reforms” are likely to be few and only slightly change the rules.

The calls for initiative reform are not what is needed. It’s like crying “Three strikes and you’re out? What do you mean, we need 4 strikes before you’re out.” Meanwhile the other side is continuing to play.

Crying you don’t like the rules is not going to beat the opposition which continues to play. Get with the game folks! Its still being played.

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