Words Matter word cloud
Words Matter word cloud

Last week, after the ini­tial 2019 elec­tion returns were pub­lished, a gid­dy Tim Eyman wast­ed no time in unleash­ing a tor­rent of fresh insults and put downs direct­ed at his oppo­nents. Eyman pub­licly jeered that elect­ed lead­ers like King Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Dow Con­stan­tine “were going through the five stages of grief” and would even­tu­al­ly arrive at the fifth stage (“accep­tance”) before very long.

It appears that it’s Eyman who is in the midst of a major crash, however.

Eyman’s mood has gone from euphor­ic and gid­dy on Elec­tion Night to feisty and eager for a con­fronta­tion with oppo­nents only a cou­ple days lat­er to extreme­ly petu­lant and whiny the week after. Eyman has com­plained of being “bul­lied” by his oppo­si­tion at the Seat­tle City Hall con­fronta­tion he insti­gat­ed. He has grum­bled about being tem­porar­i­ly sus­pend­ed from being able to post to Face­book, which he seems addict­ed to. And, of course, he’s mad I‑976 is being chal­lenged in court.

“Seat­tle gov­ern­ment is suing the vot­ers because the vot­ers dis­obeyed and vot­ed for it any­way,” yelped Eyman in a state­ment dis­trib­uted to reporters. “It’s a slap in the face to the peo­ple who clear­ly oppose these dis­hon­est vehi­cle taxes.”

You want to talk about a slap in the face to vot­ers, Tim?

Then let’s talk about the Ini­tia­tive 976 bal­lot title — the words and phras­es that rep­re­sent­ed I‑976 on Wash­ing­to­ni­ans’ bal­lots this autumn. If there were a con­test for worst bal­lot title in state his­to­ry, I‑976 would be a for­mi­da­ble contender.

Here’s the I‑976 bal­lot title, writ­ten by the Office of the Attor­ney Gen­er­al, the state agency that Tim Eyman now appears to loathe more than any other:

Ini­tia­tive Mea­sure No. 976 con­cerns motor vehi­cle tax­es and fees.

This mea­sure would repeal, reduce, or remove author­i­ty to impose cer­tain vehi­cle tax­es and fees; lim­it annu­al motor-vehi­cle-license fees to $30, except vot­er-approved charges; and base vehi­cle tax­es on Kel­ley Blue Book value.

Should this mea­sure be enact­ed into law? Yes [ ] No [ ]

This bal­lot title, like the ini­tia­tive that it pur­ports to describe, is a blaz­ing dump­ster fire. Vot­ers are not giv­en any infor­ma­tion with which they could use to make an informed deci­sion about this issue. It is a fail­ure in every respect.

It’s also, I believe, an ille­gal bal­lot title.

RCW 29A.72.050 states:

The con­cise descrip­tion [for an ini­tia­tive to the peo­ple, an ini­tia­tive to the leg­is­la­ture, a ref­er­en­dum bill, or a ref­er­en­dum mea­sure] must con­tain no more than thir­ty words, be a true and impar­tial descrip­tion of the mea­sure’s essen­tial con­tents, clear­ly iden­ti­fy the propo­si­tion to be vot­ed on, and not, to the extent rea­son­ably pos­si­ble, cre­ate prej­u­dice either for or against the measure.

The I‑976 bal­lot title flunks all of these require­ments. It is not a true or impar­tial descrip­tion of the mea­sure’s con­tents, it does not clear­ly iden­ti­fy what is being vot­ed upon, and it cre­ates prej­u­dice in favor of the measure.

It has no val­ue at all, not even as fod­der for a pub­lic opin­ion survey.

If some­one sug­gest­ed this lan­guage to NPI use for a ques­tion in one of our research polls, we would reject it imme­di­ate­ly. A ques­tion that invites a par­tic­u­lar answer is not a ques­tion that will yield use­ful data.

A bet­ter bal­lot title would have been:

Ini­tia­tive Mea­sure No. 976 con­cerns trans­porta­tion funding.

This mea­sure would elim­i­nate motor vehi­cle fees sup­port­ing state and local trans­porta­tion improve­ments. Vehi­cle fees would be lim­it­ed to $30, cost­ing an esti­mat­ed $4.2 bil­lion in fund­ing for projects and ser­vices through 2025.

Should this mea­sure be enact­ed into law? Yes [ ] No [ ]

I just wrote the above over the course of about five to ten min­utes. That is how long it took me to come up with a first draft of a more defen­si­ble bal­lot title. And I am not a lawyer. Ques­tion devel­op­ment is, how­ev­er, a skill I have a lot of prac­tice with, because I write sur­vey ques­tions frequently.

I appre­ci­ate that neu­tral ques­tion writ­ing is dif­fi­cult. It’s real­ly an art form.

Notice what is dif­fer­ent about my the­o­ret­i­cal bal­lot title.

It is much more straight­for­ward and avoids the use of words like “cer­tain” and “except”, which the AGO’s attor­neys fla­grant­ly overuse in bal­lot titles.

It also con­cise­ly describes the trade­offs of the mea­sure: cheap­er car tabs mean loss of fund­ing for projects and ser­vices with­out a replace­ment rev­enue source.

(The fis­cal impact state­ment was actu­al­ly not avail­able when the I‑976 bal­lot title was writ­ten, but I believe Wash­ing­ton State law should require fis­cal impact state­ments to be com­plet­ed as part of the process of final­iz­ing an ini­tia­tive, so my the­o­ret­i­cal bal­lot title incor­po­rates the fis­cal impact estimates.)

For the pur­pos­es of this par­tic­u­lar exper­i­ment in alter­na­tive lan­guage, I kept my bal­lot title lim­it­ed to the length cur­rent­ly pre­scribed by state law.

A longer bal­lot title, how­ev­er, would allow more con­text to be offered to vot­ers. Local propo­si­tions typ­i­cal­ly have longer titles than statewide ini­tia­tives do and are more descrip­tive. State law should be changed to per­mit state-lev­el mea­sure bal­lot titles to be longer (the con­cise descrip­tion is cur­rent­ly lim­it­ed to thir­ty words).

When vot­ers are being asked to decide the fate of pro­posed laws, they need be giv­en suf­fi­cient infor­ma­tion to make an informed decision.

With I‑976, they weren’t. In fact, with I‑976, they were lied to.

Let’s go back to the orig­i­nal I‑976 bal­lot title.

“This mea­sure would repeal, reduce, or remove author­i­ty to impose cer­tain vehi­cle tax­es and fees; lim­it annu­al motor-vehi­cle-license fees to $30, except vot­er-approved charges; and base vehi­cle tax­es on Kel­ley Blue Book val­ue,” it says.

As I explained last week, a vot­er read­ing this might jus­ti­fi­ably con­clude that the ini­tia­tive they’re being asked to approve or reject lim­its motor vehi­cle license fees to thir­ty dol­lars except for “vot­er approved charges”, which would be exempt.

But con­trary to what its title says, Ini­tia­tive 976 does not exempt pre­vi­ous­ly adopt­ed “vot­er approved charges” from being elim­i­nat­ed. Seat­tle, for instance, has a vot­er approved charge that ben­e­fits Metro bus ser­vice and Sound Tran­sit has one for light rail, com­muter rail, bus rapid tran­sit, and express bus expansion.

I‑976 would repeal those fees even though the vot­ers autho­rized them.

The ref­er­ence to Kel­ley Blue Book val­ue in the title is also a big problem.

There is a pro­vi­sion in the ini­tia­tive that requires Kel­ley Blue Book data to be used to cal­cu­late a future motor vehi­cle excise tax. The bal­lot title does­n’t both­er to explain that only peo­ple in Sound Tran­sit’s juris­dic­tion cur­rent­ly pay an MVET or that the ini­tia­tive seeks to repeal that MVET entire­ly, which would make the pro­vi­sion about bas­ing the val­u­a­tion on Kel­ley Blue Book data irrelevant.

Eyman put the Kel­ley Blue Book pro­vi­sion into Ini­tia­tive 976 because he want­ed a bal­lot title that would sup­port the talk­ing points he had devel­oped for Ini­tia­tive 976 (vote for this mea­sure and it’ll fix dis­hon­est vehi­cle tax­es!). Eyman suc­ceed­ed in get­ting the Attor­ney Gen­er­al’s office to give him what he want­ed and then he picked the I‑976 bal­lot title as the lan­guage that he want­ed vot­ers to see.

The prac­tice of fil­ing mul­ti­ple ini­tia­tives with dif­fer­ent pro­vi­sions in order to obtain a favor­able bal­lot title is known as bal­lot title shop­ping.

It is an abu­sive prac­tice that wastes pub­lic tax dol­lars (oh, the irony…) but the Leg­is­la­ture has failed to put a stop to it, so Eyman has gone on doing it.

The AGO wrote a very dif­fer­ent bal­lot title for I‑975, one of the alter­na­tives to I‑976 that Eyman filed on the very same day as I‑976. Here’s that title:

Ini­tia­tive Mea­sure No. 975 con­cerns motor vehi­cle tax­es and fees.

This mea­sure would repeal or remove author­i­ty to impose cer­tain vehi­cle tax­es and fees, includ­ing charges fund­ing mass-tran­sit or region­al trans­porta­tion; lim­it motor-vehi­cle-license fees to $30, except vot­er-approved charges; and change vehi­cle-val­u­a­tion laws.

Should this mea­sure be enact­ed into law? Yes [ ] No [ ]

This title is bet­ter than the I‑976 bal­lot title, although it still con­tains defects. The AGO gen­er­at­ed a sim­i­lar title for Ini­tia­tive 976, filed on March 14th, 2018.

The les­son here is that lan­guage mat­ters. Words mean things. If you ask a loaded ques­tion, you’ll get a loaded answer. The I‑976 bal­lot title invit­ed a yes vote on Ini­tia­tive 976, stack­ing the deck in Eyman’s favor from the very begin­ning. The oppo­si­tion coali­tion, which NPI was a part of, raised mil­lions of dol­lars in an attempt to over­come the bad bal­lot title, but the bad bal­lot title won out.

The ter­ri­ble I‑976 bal­lot title is the real slap in the face to voters.

Peo­ple right­ly expect that when they are asked to make a deci­sion about some­thing, they be giv­en the facts nec­es­sary to ren­der an informed decision.

Fact-find­ing — the pur­suit of truth — is essen­tial to jour­nal­ism, essen­tial to criminal/civil jus­tice, and essen­tial to our democracy.

As a peo­ple, we can­not have any con­fi­dence in a deci­sion that was made based on bad infor­ma­tion. That is why is so impor­tant that Ini­tia­tive 976 is being chal­lenged in court. The mea­sure must be thrown out, and the Leg­is­la­ture must make ini­tia­tive reform a pri­or­i­ty in 2020 so that cons like Ini­tia­tive 976 can’t be run against the peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton State in the future.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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One reply on “A slap in the face to voters? That’s a fitting description of the Initiative 976 ballot title”

  1. It’s just sick­en­ing that peo­ple like Eyman are allowed to get away with dup­ing peo­ple like this. 

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