NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, February 17th, 2019

Bethel youth get it: In a democracy, decisions should be made by the many — not a few

Twelve years ago, Wash­ing­ton vot­ers said yes to amend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion of Wash­ing­ton State to change the thresh­old for pas­sage of school levies from three-fifths (60%+) to a sim­ple major­i­ty, the only true major­i­ty there is.

The pas­sage of this amend­ment was a big win for major­i­ty rule, one of the bedrock prin­ci­ples of democ­ra­cy. How­ev­er, the amend­ment did not extend to bonds, and as a con­se­quence, school dis­tricts’ efforts to secure financ­ing for new or improved build­ings must always receive a three-fifths vote of approval in an elec­tion with a min­i­mum turnout of forty per­cent… the so-called sixty/forty (60/40) rule.

The sixty/forty rule has been get­ting in the way of Wash­ing­ton’s adher­ence with anoth­er often-cit­ed, vital­ly impor­tant pro­vi­sion of the Con­sti­tu­tion… the pre­am­ble of Arti­cle IX, which clear­ly states that it shall be the para­mount duty of the state to amply pro­vide for the edu­ca­tion of all youth with­in in its bor­ders.

Time and again, school dis­tricts in Wash­ing­ton have seen bond propo­si­tions go down to defeat despite earn­ing robust, healthy majori­ties.

And that’s because, thanks to the sixty/forty rule, 59% just isn’t enough to pass a bond. The sixty/forty rule unde­mo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly puts a sub­ma­jor­i­ty in charge of the out­come, which would be unthink­able in elec­toral pol­i­tics. (When a can­di­date gets 59% of the vote, that’s con­sid­ered to be a land­slide, an epic win.)

Majori­ties of vot­ers are suf­fi­cient to elect can­di­dates, pass school levies, and decide statewide bal­lot mea­sures, includ­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ments. Yet bond propo­si­tions for schools remain sub­ject to a high­er thresh­old.

This needs to change.

Hap­pi­ly, the Leg­is­la­ture is cur­rent­ly con­sid­er­ing a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment that would do away with the sixty/forty rule for school bonds. Request­ed by the Super­in­ten­dent of Pub­lic Instruc­tion, Chris Reyk­dal, the amend­ment has been intro­duced in the House as HJR 4203 and in the Sen­ate as SJR 8201.

This past week, stu­dents from the Bethel School Dis­trict showed up to explain to leg­is­la­tors why pass­ing this amend­ment is imper­a­tive, win­ning the admi­ra­tion and applause of the edi­to­r­i­al board of the Taco­ma News Tri­bune:

Last year, twen­ty-eight school bonds around the state failed, even though all but four had more than fifty per­cent sup­port.

In Tuesday’s elec­tion, school bonds in Clark, Sno­homish and Skag­it coun­ties were falling short despite win­ning a major­i­ty.

Of all the argu­ments against the super­ma­jor­i­ty we’ve heard, none can top the Bethel stu­dents who tes­ti­fied before a leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee Thurs­day. The teens elo­quent­ly called for a return to a sim­ple-major­i­ty rule for school bonds, which was part of Washington’s orig­i­nal Con­sti­tu­tion rat­i­fied one hun­dred and thir­ty years ago.

Allow­ing 41 per­cent of vot­ers to stand in the way of safe, healthy and edu­ca­tion­al­ly com­pet­i­tive cam­pus­es is unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic, they said.

“In our gov­ern­ment class­es they teach us in high school, they call it the tyran­ny of the minor­i­ty,” Sam Laf­fer­ty, a stu­dent at Gra­ham-Kapowsin High School, told the House Edu­ca­tion Com­mit­tee.

Bra­vo, Sam. Bra­vo! You and your peers clear­ly under­stand the argu­ments that Hamil­ton and Madi­son were try­ing to con­vey in the The Fed­er­al­ist.

You get it: in a democ­ra­cy, deci­sions should be made by the many, not a few.

It’s tru­ly a shame that Tim Eyman and the Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter don’t get it. They remain obsessed with sab­o­tag­ing major­i­ty rule in our state.

Our founders would be shak­ing their heads at their behav­ior.

In 1889, when a con­ven­tion of most­ly Repub­li­can men was draft­ing the doc­u­ment that would ulti­mate­ly become the Con­sti­tu­tion of the State of Wash­ing­ton, they faced a deci­sion: what should be the thresh­old for pas­sage of bills in the House and Sen­ate? After think­ing the mat­ter over and delib­er­at­ing at length, they con­clud­ed that the only sen­si­ble thresh­old was a major­i­ty of each cham­ber.

So they wrote what became Arti­cle II, Sec­tion 22, which states:

SECTION 22. PASSAGE OF BILLS. No bill shall become a law unless on its final pas­sage the vote be tak­en by yeas and nays, the names of the mem­bers vot­ing for and against the same be entered on the jour­nal of each house, and a major­i­ty of the mem­bers elect­ed to each house be record­ed there­on as vot­ing in its favor.

At the time Wash­ing­ton became a state, there was no sixty/forty rule for bond propo­si­tions in the Con­sti­tu­tion. That was added decades lat­er. Now, we have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to undo that mis­take and allow major­i­ty rule to gov­ern the fate of our school bonds. This must become a bipar­ti­san pri­or­i­ty in the Leg­is­la­ture.

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2 Comments

  1. Not every­one believes a sim­ple major­i­ty should be enough to raise or cre­ate tax­es.

    # by Denise Moody :: February 24th, 2019 at 10:17 AM
    • That’s true, Denise. But our founders cer­tain­ly believed that a major­i­ty of greater than fifty per­cent ought to be the thresh­old for ordi­nary leg­is­la­tion, includ­ing rev­enue bills.

      If you believe a sub­ma­jor­i­ty should get to con­trol the out­come of rev­enue bills, then why not oth­er kinds of bills?

      And why stop at two-thirds when we can require, say, nine-tenths?

      # by Andrew :: February 24th, 2019 at 11:36 AM