Direct democracy turns one hundred in Washington: Time to bring back the *citizen* initiative

One hundred years ago, the people of Washington prevailed upon their legislators to offer an amendment to the state’s Constitution providing for citizen lawmaking through the initiative and the referendum. That amendment, which the people adopted, was meant to give Washingtonians a stronger voice in their own government, complementing the legislative process rather than supplanting it. At many points during the last ten decades, the initiative and referendum have served as a helpful check on the Legislature, paving the way for change that otherwise would have fallen victim to dithering, inaction, or corruption.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the powers of direct democracy have been used more for ill than good, as exemplified by the emergence of Tim Eyman’s initiative factory.

Last week, Permanent Defense celebrated and commemorated its tenth anniversary, and a few days later, in honor of the one hundredth birthday of the initiative and referendum in Washington, Washington State University organized a forum on direct democracy in Olympia to ponder the question of whether the initiative process really still belongs to the people. (In our view, that’s no longer a question: the answer is no, and the evidence backing up that answer is overwhelming).

Eyman, who participated in the forum, sent out an email today attempting to portray himself as a tolerant good-guy looking out for the people’s right to make law at the ballot – ironic given that he has done more than anyone else to co-opt the initiative process on behalf of powerful interests.

His email included this paragraph worth of statistics which caught our attention:

An interesting fact: over the past 13 years, voters have passed into law 21 initiatives. Of those, 11 were liberal ideas and 10 were conservative. Of the 10 conservative initiatives, 7 of them were ours.

Since it is always a bad idea to trust Tim Eyman’s numbers, we went and looked up the electoral history ourselves. As it turns out, Eyman only fudged one number – the total number of initiatives Washington voters have passed into law over the last thirteen elections. It’s actually twenty-three, not twenty-one.

We would agree that eleven of those twenty-three successful initiatives could be described as liberal ideas – they were measures that had progressive backing. We would also agree that ten of those successful initiatives could be described as conservative ideas – they were measures with right wing backing.

However, voters also considered three measures that we don’t think correspond to ideological battle lines: I-696 from 1999 (concerned fishing restrictions), I-713 from 2000 (concerned outlawing certain types of traps), and I-872 from 2004 (concerned with creating a “Top Two” winnowing election).

The former initiative was defeated and the latter two were passed.

Furthermore, there were  fifteen other measures on the ballot over the last thirteen years that did not pass. Most of those were right wing initiatives, as the data below shows. Figures in bold denote the numbers of initiatives that voters passed; figures in roman denote the numbers of initiatives that voters rejected.

Progressive (left-wing) initiatives

  • 1999: None
  • 2000: 728, 732
  • 2001: 773, 775
  • 2002: 790
  • 2003: None
  • 2004: 297, 884
  • 2005: 336, 901
  • 2006: 937
  • 2007: None
  • 2008: 1000, 1029
  • 2009: None
  • 2010: 1098
  • 2011: 1163

Total overall: 14
Total successful: 11

Conservative (right-wing) initiatives

  • 1999: 695
  • 2000: 722, 729, 745
  • 2001: 747
  • 2002: 776
  • 2003: 841
  • 2004: 892
  • 2005: 900, 912, 330
  • 2006: 920, 933
  • 2007: 960
  • 2008: 985
  • 2009: 1033
  • 2010: 1053, 1082, 1100, 1105, 1107
  • 2011: 1125, 1183

Total overall: 22
Total successful: 10

Please note that referendum bills and referendum measures are not included in the above figures – nor are proposed constitutional amendments, which may only be put on the ballot by the Legislature, and tend to be uncontroversial.

Though the data above paints a more complete picture of our recent electoral history than Tim Eyman did in his email, it still leaves out out a lot. Without discussion and analysis, context is lacking. The lists above are analogous to a line score: they tell us what happened, but not how or why.

For instance, one important thing we can’t see from looking at these numbers is that many of the progressive initiatives that voters passed over the last thirteen years were modest in scope and did not attract particularly strong opposition.

Conversely, nearly all the right wing initiatives (both successes and failures) were deliberately written to inflict a great deal of harm to our common wealth or plan of government and, as a consequence, were fought by a series of well-organized no campaigns. Such aggressiveness by conservatives may result in a lower statistical win/loss ratio, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a profitable strategy.

To the contrary: It pays serious dividends.

That’s because even when they don’t win, conservatives still force progressives to commit substantial resources to defending the state.

And when they are successful, they can cause a lot of damage in one broad stroke, since the ramifications of their schemes are so far-reaching.

When progressives brought direct democracy here a hundred years ago, they hoped future generations would use the initiative and referendum as tools to build Washington into a stronger state. And on many occasions, the initiative has been used to allow the people to vote on ideas to improve quality of life.

But unfortunately, in recent years, the citizen initiative has turned into the corporate initiative. With the help of a rogue’s gallery of wealthy benefactors, Tim Eyman has showed how the process can be abused and hijacked to serve destructive ends: sabotaging our Constitution, crippling our common wealth, eviscerating public services, eroding public trust in government, and discouraging civility.

In between sponsoring his ill-conceived initiatives, Eyman has become a regular visitor to the Capitol Campus in Olympia, appearing at legislative hearings to denounce efforts to return the initiative process to the people and falsely accusing those in favor of reform with wanting to do away with direct democracy altogether. Were the initiative process to be more grassroots-oriented (as the framers of the Seventh Amendment intended it to be), it would complicate Eyman’s operation, which cannot run without six figure checks from wealthy benefactors.

It should come as no surprise that Tim Eyman’s unrelenting, knee-jerk opposition to initiative reform has more to do with self-interest than principles.

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