Beware the plague of spring. No, not the West Nile virus. I'm talking about people who are paid to collect signatures for initiatives. The other night, at my bus stop, the usual sad-sack initiative gatherer approached me, but he had a new technique: Instead of asking me to sign one initiative, he was carrying four. He wanted me to increase the sales tax to boost education funding, cut carpool lanes and add new freeway capacity, ban smoking in all public places, and eliminate the new partisan primary in favor of the top-two-candidates-advance- regardless-of-party approach.
People, this is seriously out of hand. Every day, hundreds of these migrant workers are gathering thousands of signatures for a host of complicated, important public policies, encouraging Washingtonians to make key decisions about the future of our state with less thought than we give to what to have for lunch.
This virulent outbreak of a rogue direct democracy is driven not by idealistic political spirit but by money.
When the drafters of our state constitution gave the people the power to directly make laws (the power of initiative), to repeal laws (the power of referendum), and to drive out corrupt politicians before the end of their terms (the power of recall), they were motivated by a spirit of political reform embodied in the Populist and Progressive movements. Initiatives, referendums, and recalls were supposed to be the people's check and balance on government. Instead, they are now a tool of the people whose checkbook is big enough to balance after writing out six figures.
The abuse of the initiative system knows no political boundaries: liberals, conservatives, and moderates are all doing it. Everybody has their particular excuse as to why their issue cannot possibly go through the normal deliberations and compromises of the legislative process. Tax cutter Tim Eyman proclaims that government will never slash its own revenues, so the people have to take matters into their own hands. The League of Education Voters' Lisa MacFarlane explains that children cannot wait for a better education, so direct democracy is her only option. Bellevue Square's Kemper Freeman argues that traffic keeps getting worse, and the entrenched bureaucrats won't do what's needed, so it's time for an initiative.
People who have lots of money, or who can raise lots of money, buy their way onto the ballot. And then voters make matters worse because we are not qualified to make these decisions. As University of Washington professor of communications John Gastil showed in his survey of Washington voters right before the last election, the public is simply not informed about the issues it is voting on (see "From Slots to Tots," March 17). You don't really need a survey by a social scientist to know this, however. Just look at the stupid things we've done recently. In 1998, we passed Referendum 49, a dubious measure that used all kinds of complicated bonding to fund transportation projects. The next year, we passed Initiative 695—repealing the license-plate-renewal taxes that paid for Referendum 49's projects.
The Washington electorate wants something for nothing. In recent years, we have passed initiatives to decrease class size, increase teacher pay, help home health care workers, and fund health insurance for low-income kids. In other words, we want government to do more. Also over the past few years, we have passed measures to cut car tabs and slash property taxes. In other words, we want to pay less. Our message to our elected officials is clear: Do more with less. Guess what? Life doesn't work that way. Washington voters aren't acting like grown-ups. Instead of making clear, consistent choices about the direction of government, we are whipsawing. Cut! Spend! Cut! Spend!
Unfortunately, our state Legislature is not likely to do anything soon to stop us from acting like idiots. In interviews this week, key legislators told me they are loath to reform the initiative process because the voters are so protective of our right to direct democracy. In a 2001 survey, political science professor Todd Donovan of Western Washington University found that 81 percent of voters believe the power of the initiative is a good thing. Legislators know we're acting like babies because they have to clean up our messes. Yet they are too cowed by voter anger to tell us we need to change our behavior. This lack of leadership is, sadly, another reason our state's body politic is ailing, and it breeds—you guessed it—more initiatives.
So what can we do about this plague? Take your signature seriously. Until you can honestly say that you have thoroughly studied the issue, and agree that all other avenues have been exhausted, and you know who is paying for this proposed legislation and what their motivation is, don't pick up the poison pen. Decline to sign.
George Howland Jr. is Seattle Weekly's political editor. Editor in Chief Knute Berger is taking the week off.