South Dakota Shows Washington State the Progressive Use of the Initiative and Referendum Process

Here in Washington State there have been a spate of liberal moaners complaining about conservatives putting initiatives and referendums on the ballot. One of the most recent is an attempt by conservative churches and a for profit ballot initiative promoter to get signatures for Referendum 65. Referendum 65 is an attempt to repeal a recently passed state law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. The group opposed to R-65 is Washington Won’t Discriminate.

In South Dakota, citizens have shown why there is a need for the initiative and referendum process as a safeguard and that it can also work for progressives. The South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families has turned in over 38,416 signatures, more than 20,000 over the minimum 16,278 needed, to place HB 1215 on the November ballot. HB 1215 would have banned all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest. To learn more about their campaign and to make a contribution contact Focus: South Dakota

South Dakota shows us why the initiative and referendum process is needed and that progressives need to get involved in the issues, rather than bemoan the process. You can either let conservatives dominate the ballot or progressives can push their own measures and have the conservatives on the defensive. Recently progressives have been on the defense because they have not been using the initiative process as much to promote progressive causes. As a result they have had to spend a lot of their time and money trying to ward off conservative attacks from bad initiatives.

South Dakota was the first state to adopt the initiative and referendum process. They did so in 1898. Since then they have enacted 17 initiatives and rejected 31. Their first successful initiative dealt with a state primary system. In 1980 they rejected an initiative that would have banned the Legislature from changing any voter passed initiative. Initiatives that passed included voter approval of nuclear waste disposal compacts, banning corporate hog farms, and prohibiting mourning dove hunting.

Washington first enacted its initiative and referendum process in 1912. Of 912 initiatives to the people filed through last year, 125 have made it onto the ballot. 63 have passed and 62 have failed. Of 354 initiatives to the legislature filed, 28 were certified. 18 passed and 13 failed. The following history is from the national Initiative and Referendum Institute’s website.

In 1907 the state’s organized labor and farm groups cooperated with the Direct Legislation League in deluging the legislature with petitions calling for statewide I&R. Soon after, the I&R bill introduced by State Rep. Glenn N. Ranck of Vancouver passed the lower house 66 to 26, but the state senate defeated it 25 to 15. An I&R supporter noted that “just two forces” opposed I&R: “special privileged corporation interests and the organized liquor traffic,” the latter because it feared voters would enact a Prohibition initiative.

The state Federation of Labor, whose president was Charles Case, and the state Grange, whose “master” (i.e., president) was C. B. Kegley, formed a Joint Legislative Committee that finally got the I&R amendment through both houses of the legislature in 1911. However, the version passed by the legislature did not allow voters to initiate state constitutional amendments, because certain state senators, with the active support of Governor Hay, insisted that an amendment receive at least 60 percent of all votes cast in a general election in order to pass. The pro-I&R committee refused to accept this compromise, and over 70 years later, there is still no provision for initiatives to amend the state constitution in Washington. Voters ratified the legislature’s I&R bill by a five to two margin in 1912, and in the same election, George Cotterill was elected mayor of Seattle.

While by no means complete, the Initiative and Referendum Institute notes some major legislation enacted in Washington by the initiative process, including statewide prohibition (later repealed), establishing a redistricting commission, establishing Public Utility Districts, setting up the statewide civil service system, requiring that drunk drivers take a breath test, setting a retailer interest rate lid, requiring shorelines management, and requiring that toxic waste cleanup be paid for by polluters.

Others not mentioned in the above list include requiring voter approval before bonds can be issued for large public power projects, establishing a state Presidential primary, the blanket primary system (recently overturned by the courts), permanent voter registration, non-partisan school elections, authorizing joint tenancy in property, providing for Daylight Savings Time, setting up campaign financial disclosure requirements, removing the sales tax on food, increasing the state’s minimum wage, reducing school class size, increasing teachers’ pay, requiring hazardous waste cleanup at Hanford and doing performance audits.

A more complete list of these can be seen at the Washington Secretary of State’s links for initiatives to the people.and initiatives to the legislature that have been approved. The point here is that lots of quality and needed legislation that we take for granted only came about because of the initiative process. While we bemoan conservative efforts to reduce taxes and cut services and protections, that is to be expected. But lots of progressive issues have also gone to the voters. The voters ultimately decide. But if we don’t put progressive issues before the voters, we concede the playing field to our opponents.

On the issue of abortion, Washington state voters re-affirmed a woman’s right to choose in this state with passage of Initiative 120 in 1991. The initiative effort at the time was controversial because it was not like in South Dakota where rights had been repealed by the Legislature. Here it was a conscious decision to have voters affirm that this was what they wanted. It was a calculated risk of putting the issue to the voters at that time. It was successful after a hard fought campaign but it did part of what initiatives do – they educate voters as to the issues and let them make a choice. They set the political debate.

The ballot title for I-120 was very direct “Shall state abortion laws be revised, including declaring a woman’s right to choose physician performed abortion prior to fetal viability?” The vote outcome showed a divided state then but the initiative passed. Some 756,653 voted to approve the measure; some 752,354 voted to not approve. The percentages are 50.01% to 49.86%.

Progressives prevailed partly because they set up what was to be voted on, rather than letting conservatives define the issues and strategy. That is what we need to do more of. Just as we can not ignore the Washington State Legislature and only respond to oppose bills we don’t like; we can not ignore the initiative process and only get active when there is something we oppose.

We need to be actively promoting legislation both in the Legislature and by initiative. Efforts by the environmental community in the Legislature with proactive bills being passed for the last 2 years shows that success is possible. This year’s effort to get Initiative 937 on the ballot also represents a proactive stance. Initiative 937 promotes the use of renewable energy and decreases our dependence on foreign oil. We need to help insure its success by helping it meet its signature deadline. Help out by contacting the campaign at Yes on 937 They need help collecting signatures and also contributions to fund their efforts.

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