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.
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.