Dope and Democracy

SEPTEMBER IN SEATTLE: Bumbershoot. Golden autumnal sunshine. And lawsuits by initiative backers.

In 2000, the monorail boosters behind Initiative 53 sued the city. That case was settled before going to trial. In 2001, the homeless advocates pushing Initiative 71 sued Seattle. They won. This year, Sensible Seattle, the group sponsoring Initiative 75, which would direct the police and prosecutors to make adult personal possession of marijuana their lowest enforcement priority, brought the lawsuit. Sensible Seattle's Dominic Holden explains they sued because the city took too long to count the signatures and threw out thousands of signatures from people who signed twice or failed to include the date next to their autograph.

On Sept. 6, King County Superior Court Judge James Doerty ruled against Sensible Seattle, asserting that on the questions before him, the city was copacetic.

Why all the lawsuits? The city initiative process is broken. The easiest way to fix it would be for the I-75 folks to appeal their loss. Even if they didn't win their case, a ruling by the state Court of Appeals or the state Supreme Court would clarify the rules for city initiatives.

The Seattle City Charter, a document analogous to the state constitution, says, "The first power reserved by the people is the initiative."

The freeholders who wrote the charter were imbued with plenty of the populist spirit that animated Washington's politics at the time. They believed that the citizens might need to get government to sit up and take notice by passing laws through direct democracy. While many feel that statewide initiatives have been perverted by big money, greed, and special interests, the monorail maniacs, the homeless, and the potheads are precisely the kind of grassroots constituents the freeholders had in mind when drafting the initiative language.

The charter urges speed. It gives the city clerk only 20 days to let initiative backers know if they have gathered the necessary number of valid signatures—10 percent of the people who voted in the last mayoral election, currently 17,228—to get on the ballot.

The first hang-up is that the city no longer checks the signatures on the initiative petitions. The Legislature passed that responsibility to King County decades ago. Yet the state law calls only for the county to exercise "reasonable promptness" in checking signatures. So while the city no longer counts its own signatures, the county doesn't have to abide by the 20-day rule. This problem can likely only be addressed through a charter change. The city clerk took a stab at fixing the 20-day rule (see "Too Much Initiative," Sept. 11), but the cure seems worse than the disease. I-75 really can't do anything about problems with the 20-day rule.

Sensible Seattle could, however, address the issue of how the county validates signatures. State law outlines the rules for city and county initiatives: If people sign more than once, throw them all out; if people forget the date, toss the signature.

These rules are very different from those that govern signatures on state initiatives. In 1977, the state Supreme Court ruled that when there are duplicate valid signatures, only one of them should be tossed. The state constitution makes it clear that the power of the initiative is to be interpreted liberally. That calls into question nitpicking over a missing date next to an otherwise valid signature. No one has challenged the discrepancy between the local and state rules at an appellate level, according to deputy King County prosecutor Jeff Richard.

Sensible Seattle is considering an appeal of Judge Doerty's decision. "When the elections system disenfranchises the voters, they deny us a crucial part of American democracy," Holden says.

Sensible Seattle's first round loss could set up a much larger victory.


Real Change, the sizzling project of advocacy journalism that empowers homeless people, is having its eighth anniversary party. When Tim Harris arrived in town, armed only with a great idea, it didn't seem too likely that his project would come to fruition, much less thrive. Now the newspaper comes out every 14 days, has a circulation of 35,000, and employs over 200 vendors drawn from the city's poor and homeless.

Real Change will only continue if you help. Come by their party for fabulous fun and food at Prag House, 747 16th E. on Capitol Hill, on Friday, Sept. 20, from 6 to 9 p.m. The suggested donation is $35. For more information, call 441-3247.

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