For the third straight year, voters in Washington State will not see any statewide initiatives on their ballots this autumn.
Today was the deadline to turn in signatures for initiatives to the people for 2022, and no campaigns made appointments to submit signatures, Secretary of State Steve Hobbs’ staff told the Northwest Progressive Institute.
Two campaigns had been fundraising with the hopes of getting on the ballot.
The first, helmed by former Dino Rossi advisor J. Vander Stoep and operative Mark Funk, wanted to repeal the state’s capital gains tax on the wealthy.
The I‑1929 effort raised over three quarters of a million dollars but folded without gathering a single signature. Reportedly, donors balked at putting up more money to qualify a measure that would have dubious chances of passing.
(Research by NPI and others has shown that the state’s capital gains tax on the wealthy is durably popular, to the chagrin of its opponents, like The Washington Policy Center, and that I‑1929 faced steep odds.)
The second, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, sought to decriminalize drug possession while increasing resources for treatment. The I‑1922 effort raised over $3.5 million and was gathering signatures right up until a few days ago, when its drive was abruptly canceled.
Organizers indicated that a lack of money was hindering them from finishing the signature drive with a sufficient number of signatures to enable them to qualify.
The number of signatures required to get a measure onto the statewide ballot in Washington is currently 324,516, equivalent to 8% of the number of Washingtonians who voted in the last election for governor.
This threshold is explicitly specified by the Washington State Constitution, allowing the signature requirement to rise or fall based on voter turnout.
Washington elects its governors in high-turnout presidential years and the 2020 presidential election had the second highest overall turnout in state history, which resulted in a big increase in the signature requirement.
No campaign has met that new requirement since it took effect.
It remains ridiculously easy to file initiatives. The filing fee, which hasn’t been raised since the initiative and referendum were created, is only five dollars. Over two hundred initiatives (mainly variations of the same schemes) were filed this year, including by Tim Eyman, whose initiative factory has been inoperable for several years, paralyzed by a lack of cash from wealthy benefactors.
The higher signature requirement is not the main obstacle to campaigns getting on the ballot nowadays, however. Rather, it’s the ill health of the signature gathering industry, which has historically operated in the shadows and on a cash basis. Most initiative campaigns rely on the labor of paid petitioners to qualify (it’s very hard to create and a sustain a volunteer signature gathering force), and costs have gone up at the same time the available labor force has decreased.
It didn’t help that firms in the industry were already in trouble even before the pandemic. For instance, Tim Eyman’s buddy Roy Ruffino of “Citizen Solutions” agreed to run a drive for I‑1000 proponent Jesse Wineberry in 2018 on spec (meaning, Ruffino’s crews provided labor in exchange for a promise to be paid rather than for cash upfront, which is the norm). When Wineberry’s operation failed to pay as agreed, Ruffino and the workers he hired were left high and dry.
I‑1000 and I‑976 (the last Tim Eyman initiative that qualified for the ballot) were the last two initiatives to make the ballot in Washington. They appeared before voters in 2019, but they actually qualified in 2018 because they began as initiatives to the Legislature. It has been almost four years since any statewide initiative signature drive ended with a successful turn-in event.
With a Democratic trifecta firmly in place since that year (when Democrats won big majorities in both chambers), progressive organizations have concentrated on securing wins through the legislative process, while right wing groups have fumbled and feuded, unable to get their act together. In the past, the Republican Party and other groups would have rallied around whatever Tim Eyman was doing, but Eyman’s initiative factory is in pieces along with “Citizen Solutions.”
At around this time last year, I discussed how the pandemic, coupled with the higher signature requirement, has altered the direct democracy landscape. While the “lockdown phase” of the pandemic is over, the pandemic is still raging and its ramifications continue to be felt. The current initiative drought will end at some point, but not this year, and perhaps not in 2023, either.