Petitions for I-1125
Three petitions for Tim Eyman's Initiative 1125 (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

About fifty years ago, Wash­ing­ton changed its elec­tion laws to hold state-lev­el gen­er­al elec­tions in odd-num­bered years, per­mit­ting ini­tia­tives and ref­er­en­da to be qual­i­fied to the bal­lot on an annu­al basis instead of a bien­ni­al basis.

While oth­er states — like Wash­ing­ton’s neigh­bor Ore­gon — wise­ly con­sid­er their plebiscites in even-num­bered years only, when turnout is much high­er, Wash­ing­ton con­tin­ues to cling to an elec­tion sys­tem that allows statewide ini­tia­tives and ref­er­en­da to be con­sid­ered in odd years too.

Leg­is­la­tion has been pro­posed in recent years to phase out state-lev­el elec­tions in odd num­bered years by State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mia Gregersen, but it has­n’t been act­ed on, so the sys­tem cre­at­ed in the 1970s remains in place for now.

Nev­er­the­less, elec­tion-fatigued vot­ers will be get­ting a break of sorts this year. For the first time since 2017 and for only the sec­ond time in sev­er­al decades, there will be no statewide mea­sures on the bal­lot. No ini­tia­tives, no ref­er­en­da, and no con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ments. (There will, unfor­tu­nate­ly, be a few Tim Eyman craft­ed push polls, but those aren’t real bal­lot mea­sures, so they don’t count.)

The dead­line to turn in sig­na­tures for a statewide ini­tia­tive was Friday.

It came and went with no turn-ins.

What’s dri­ving this rare break from bal­lot measures?

The pan­dem­ic, for starters. COVID-19 has scram­bled a lot of things, and direct democ­ra­cy is one of them. With the excep­tion of leg­isla­tive­ly referred mea­sures, ini­tia­tives and ref­er­en­da qual­i­fy for the bal­lot through peti­tions. And cir­cu­lat­ing peti­tions is logis­ti­cal­ly dif­fi­cult right now. Not impos­si­ble, but difficult.

On top of the logis­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties of cir­cu­lat­ing peti­tions in a time of phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing is the uncer­tain­ty caused by the eco­nom­ic and social fall­out from the pan­dem­ic. It is hard to plan a suc­cess­ful cam­paign in an envi­ron­ment like this, because it’s hard to get a read on any­thing right now, includ­ing the elec­toral land­scape. Nobody knows what the future holds, and even mak­ing an edu­cat­ed guess is par­tic­u­lar­ly tricky in this most unusu­al time in our history.

The pan­dem­ic isn’t the only fac­tor, though. Oth­er fac­tors pre­date it.

As men­tioned ear­li­er, four years ago, in the before-COVID times, we also had a bal­lot with no statewide mea­sures on it. I spoke to The Seat­tle Times’ Dan­ny West­neat about how unusu­al that was for a May 2017 col­umn he was writ­ing, and sug­gest­ed that Trump’s 2016 Elec­toral Col­lege vic­to­ry and sub­se­quent occu­pa­tion of the White House had cre­at­ed some­thing of a void in state-lev­el politics.

“There just isn’t any­thing pro­gres­sive in the works,” I explained to West­neat, refer­ring to the Novem­ber 2017 bal­lot. “There’s a desire to take advan­tage of the anti-Trump momen­tum out there, but it’s direct­ed more toward 2018.”

Sure enough, the fol­low­ing year yield­ed a bumper crop of initiatives.

There were four on the bal­lot, with three aim­ing to advance pro­gres­sive caus­es: I‑1631, I‑1634, I‑1639, and I‑940. Vot­ers passed I‑1634 (restrict­ing the tax­a­tion of sug­ary bev­er­ages), I‑1639 (gun respon­si­bil­i­ty), and I‑940 (police account­abil­i­ty) while reject­ing I‑1631 (pol­lu­tion pricing).

At the same time that those mea­sures were being qual­i­fied, Tim Eyman and a group run by Jesse Wineber­ry were busy work­ing on a pair of sequels for 2019: Ini­tia­tive 976 (vehi­cle fees) and Ini­tia­tive 1000 (diver­si­ty, equi­ty, inclu­sion).

I‑976 and I‑1000 each had their sig­na­ture dri­ves in 2018, but did not appear on the bal­lot in 2018 because they were filed as ini­tia­tives to the Leg­is­la­ture for 2019. The Leg­is­la­ture let I‑976 go to the bal­lot and approved I‑1000; I‑1000 soon end­ed up on the bal­lot any­way as a result of a ref­er­en­dum sig­na­ture drive.

I men­tion all this his­to­ry because I think it’s strik­ing that we have now gone three years in a row (2019, 2020, 2021) with no suc­cess­ful spring statewide sig­na­ture dri­ve for an ini­tia­tive. That’s almost an entire pres­i­den­tial cycle.

And, of course, there was the dry spell of 2017 before that.

With the sin­gu­lar and impor­tant excep­tion of 2018, “ini­tia­tive sea­son” real­ly has­n’t been a thing in Wash­ing­ton since the Oba­ma presidency.

Is the unusu­al becom­ing the norm?

There are rea­sons to believe this trend could continue.

The state’s pop­u­la­tion boom and healthy even-num­bered year elec­tion turnout is fore­most among them. A larg­er elec­torate and high­er lev­els of par­tic­i­pa­tion means that the task of get­ting on the bal­lot peri­od­i­cal­ly gets tougher, because the sig­na­ture thresh­old for ini­tia­tives and ref­er­en­da is tied to the num­ber of vot­ers vot­ing every four years for gov­er­nor. (It’s 8% for the for­mer, 4% for the latter.)

Since 1970, Wash­ing­ton’s pop­u­la­tion has more than dou­bled. The state has been grow­ing and grow­ing for over half a cen­tu­ry, as Cen­sus sta­tis­tics attest:

  • 1970 cen­sus: 3,409,169 (19.5% change)
  • 1980 cen­sus: 4,132,156 (21.2% change)
  • 1990 cen­sus: 4,866,692 (17.8% change)
  • 2000 cen­sus: 5,894,121 (21.1% change)
  • 2010 cen­sus: 6,724,540 (14.1% change)
  • 2020 cen­sus: 7,705,281 (14.58% change)

In 1970, Wash­ing­ton was the twen­ty-sec­ond most pop­u­lous state.

Now it’s the thir­teenth most populous.

It is not incon­ceiv­able that by 2040, Wash­ing­ton will be in the top ten.

Sig­na­ture thresh­olds for ini­tia­tives and ref­er­en­da are fixed in the Con­sti­tu­tion. They date back to the Sev­enth Amend­ment, approved by vot­ers in 1912, which cre­at­ed the peo­ple’s ini­tia­tive and ref­er­en­dum powers.

The Sev­enth Amend­ment altered Arti­cle II to spec­i­fy that “the peo­ple reserve to them­selves the pow­er to pro­pose bills, laws, and to enact or reject the same at the polls, inde­pen­dent of the leg­is­la­ture.” The framers of the Sev­enth Amend­ment under­stood that the state would grow and change over time. Accord­ing­ly, they based Wash­ing­ton’s sig­na­ture thresh­olds on per­cent­age figures.

In 2001, it took 197,734 valid sig­na­tures to get an ini­tia­tive on the bal­lot. Today, the min­i­mum num­ber of valid sig­na­tures required is 324,516.

And that’s not count­ing the “cush­ion” need­ed to off­set dupli­cate or invalid sig­na­tures. When the cush­ion is includ­ed, the total num­ber of sig­na­tures an ini­tia­tive dri­ve must pro­duce comes to 405,000.

After 2024, that num­ber is like­ly to go up again.

A relat­ed sec­ond rea­son that the trend may con­tin­ue is soci­etal frac­ture, of var­i­ous kinds. In addi­tion to hav­ing grown in size, Wash­ing­ton’s elec­torate is also increas­ing­ly polar­ized and frag­ment­ed, like else­where in the nation.

Media con­sump­tion habits have been affect­ed by the frag­men­ta­tion, significantly.

There are more options for enter­tain­ment (includ­ing ad-free, sub­scrip­tion pow­ered stream­ing ser­vices like Net­flix, Prime Video, or Dis­ney Plus) and way more sub­sti­tutes for what I’m going to call the news than there used to be.

Mean­while, owing in part to the col­lapse of old mass media busi­ness mod­els, there are far few­er news­rooms and few­er jour­nal­ists work­ing to objec­tive­ly report facts to the pub­lic. Pro­pa­gan­da is prof­itable, as Rupert Mur­doch’s Fox oper­a­tion con­tin­ues to prove. Real jour­nal­ism? Not so much.

Many peo­ple now get a lot of their infor­ma­tion fil­tered through web­sites con­trolled by big tech com­pa­nies, chiefly Google and Face­book. The big tech com­pa­nies want peo­ple to spend time on their prop­er­ties, so their algo­rithms pro­mote and rec­om­mend engag­ing con­tent, which may be fabrication-filled.

Reach­ing vot­ers in this frag­ment­ed land­scape is no longer as sim­ple as run­ning TV ads for a few weeks. It’s becom­ing a more com­plex, cost­ly proposition.

That brings us to the third rea­son the trend might con­tin­ue: Mon­ey. Specif­i­cal­ly, the increas­ing amounts of mon­ey need­ed to pull off an ini­tia­tive or referendum.

In the­o­ry, it is pos­si­ble to get a mea­sure on the statewide bal­lot with a small amount of mon­ey and a large corps of vol­un­teers. But in prac­tice, it’s not.

Bal­lot mea­sure cam­paigns typ­i­cal­ly require big bud­gets run­ning into the mil­lions of dol­lars. There’s the cost of paid sig­na­ture gath­er­ing, the cost to pay an gen­er­al or strate­gic con­sult­ing firm to design and oper­ate the cam­paign, the cost of pub­lic opin­ion research, the costs asso­ci­at­ed with cre­at­ing, pro­duc­ing, plac­ing, and run­ning ads, and the costs of pay­ing a cam­paign staff or addi­tion­al consultants.

There are cer­tain­ly enti­ties in Wash­ing­ton pol­i­tics that can still afford — either sin­gu­lar­ly or joint­ly in tan­dem with allies — to finance statewide bal­lot mea­sure cam­paigns like the kind long­time vot­ers have become accus­tomed to.

But why should they, when lob­by­ing, lit­i­ga­tion, and local lev­el cam­paigns (like Com­pas­sion Seat­tle, a char­ter amend­ment that just did a city lev­el sig­na­ture dri­ve) are bet­ter, less cost­ly invest­ments for pur­su­ing their polit­i­cal objectives?

Since Demo­c­ra­t­ic State Sen­a­tor Man­ka Dhin­gra’s vic­to­ry almost four years ago, which made Wash­ing­ton a Demo­c­ra­t­ic tri­fec­ta again, the leg­isla­tive are­na in Wash­ing­ton has been trans­formed from a bone­yard of grid­lock and neglect to a gar­den of progress and pros­per­i­ty. The state­house has become a much more hap­pen­ing, pro­duc­tive place. A place where the peo­ple’s needs are act­ed upon.

On the oth­er side of the divide, law­suits have become the response of choice, at least with respect to chal­leng­ing pro­gres­sive leg­isla­tive wins. Law­suits are far less expen­sive than bal­lot mea­sures, and they can be qui­et­ly financed by donors who’d pre­fer not to have their names list­ed on C‑3 forms filed with the PDC.

Fourth, thanks to the dili­gent, ongo­ing work of Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son (who is per­haps the best AG we’ve ever had), account­abil­i­ty has final­ly been imposed on bad actors who were break­ing the law in order to manip­u­late voters.

And I don’t just mean Tim Eyman. Eyman is with­out a doubt the worst and most noto­ri­ous of the bad actors exploit­ing the sys­tem, but there have been oth­ers.

Like the Gro­cery Man­u­fac­tur­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, for example.

They thought they could make a mock­ery of Wash­ing­ton State’s pub­lic dis­clo­sure laws (which were craft­ed, in part, to pro­tect vot­ers in the course of exer­cis­ing their duties as cit­i­zen law­mak­ers) and get away with it. But they were wrong.

After the GMA broke the law in their efforts to defeat a GMO label­ing ini­tia­tive in 2013, Fer­gu­son went after them with gus­to, and he beat them in court, repeat­ed­ly. They were forced to pay a big penal­ty for their wrong­do­ing.

Wash­ing­ton remains in need of new laws to stop abuse of the ini­tia­tive and ref­er­en­dum, but tena­cious enforce­ment of our exist­ing laws has been a real bless­ing. We’ve come a long way since the aughts and even the ear­ly 2010s.

All of the afore­men­tioned fac­tors have pro­duced a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal land­scape than the one I encoun­tered when I jumped into pol­i­tics twen­ty years ago.

It’s worth remem­ber­ing that the Sev­enth Amend­ment was pro­posed not to replace the leg­isla­tive process, but to pro­vide a safe­ty valve in case it broke down. The Direct Leg­is­la­tion League and oth­er direct democ­ra­cy pro­po­nents stat­ed explic­it­ly that their goal was not to replace the Leg­is­la­ture, but rather to allow the peo­ple to take mat­ters into their own hands when needed.

For­tu­nate­ly, Wash­ing­ton State does­n’t have a leg­isla­tive fil­i­buster like the fed­er­al Sen­ate, or an oner­ous quo­rum require­ment like its neigh­bor Oregon.

Wash­ing­ton’s Leg­is­la­ture oper­ates by major­i­ty vote and major­i­ty rule in accor­dance with Arti­cle II, Sec­tion 22. That means things can get done, even heav­ier lifts that don’t have bipar­ti­san sup­port, like a cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy.

That’s big.

In the words of the old say­ing: when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Democ­ra­cy in Wash­ing­ton State is hold­ing up pret­ty well con­sid­er­ing every­thing our coun­try is going through. We’re tough­ing it out. And thank good­ness for that.

There may not be any ini­tia­tives or ref­er­en­da on this year’s bal­lot, but the tools of direct democ­ra­cy cre­at­ed by the sev­enth Amend­ment aren’t going any­where. If need be, the bal­lot remains avail­able to take an idea straight to the peo­ple for their con­sid­er­a­tion. In the mean­time, we can be thank­ful that our Leg­is­la­ture rose to the occa­sion dur­ing COVID-19 and nim­bly adapt­ed itself as an insti­tu­tion to ensure it could keep work­ing through the pan­dem­ic doing the peo­ple’s business.

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 “2021 will be another rare year with no state level initiatives or referenda in Washington”

  1. Very good piece of writ­ing. Well writ­ten and con­struct­ed, mak­ing a com­pli­cat­ed set of issues eas­i­ly under­stood. Very infor­ma­tive. Thank you.

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