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Citizens sign the petitions at a recent Let’s Go Washington signing event thrown by volunteers.

‘A debacle’: Our troubled citizen initiative process is in a record drought

Danny Westneat
Seattle Times columnist

Original post from The Seattle Times – First published Friday, July 13th, 2022

Maybe it’s the sidelining of Tim Eyman. Or malaise from the pandemic. Or more fallout from our hyperpolarized political times.

No one is quite sure why, but this fall will mark the third year in a row voters will find zero statewide citizens’ initiatives on their ballots. For this once insanely popular form of “direct democracy,” it’s the longest drought going back nearly a century, to the 1920s.

For the past three decades, through 2019, we averaged three issue initiatives on the ballot per year (either initiatives to the people or to the Legislature). There was only one year during those decades that had none.

What’s going on? The initiative was once a populist relief valve, so that hacked-off citizens could take their ideas around the stranglehold of the powerful and straight to the people. Later, the tool was itself hijacked by corporations and special interests, as well as twisted into a rent-seeking factory by mercenaries like Eyman.

Now it seems, the whole concept is momentarily defunct.

Last week the ACLU of Washington announced it had failed to collect enough signatures to qualify a big-ticket drug decriminalization initiative for this fall’s ballot. This was no longshot effort by scrappy volunteers — the group spent $2.7 million on consultants and pro signature-gatherers, and has racked up an additional $669,000 in debts, according to state records.

“That’s $3 million-plus of dead money, just wasted,” says Paul Queary, who watchdogs local campaign spending for the site The Washington Observer. “That was more than enough to get an initiative on the ballot a few years ago. This turned out to be a debacle.”

Another high-stakes measure, to repeal the state’s new capital gains tax, was amply backed by superrich people but also folded last month after spending $510,000.

Queary says democracy is not immune from rampant inflation. There’s a labor shortage among itinerant canvassers, which — combined with voters not wanting to engage with clipboard-toting strangers during COVID — led to soaring costs of more than $10 per signature.

Bottom line: No direct democracy again this year — not even the bought and paid for kind.

Personally I am OK with the break. Initiatives can galvanize political movements, but they’re not usually a great way to make public policy (they’re hard to amend, for instance). As one example, the important and complex topic of decriminalizing drugs probably shouldn’t be decided in an up-or-down vote on a proposal written by a special interest group anyway.

It could also be that this is the calm before the storm — a big storm, if a new initiative-promoting gambit gets its way.

From Eyman’s ashes, two outfits have risen on the right. One is called Restore Washington, the other Let’s Go Washington. Their joint drive is bankrolled mostly by a Kirkland businessman named Brian Heywood.

“I came here from the People’s Republic of California,” Heywood introduced himself to a conservative crowd recently at a Marysville church. “I’m an economic refugee. I came here to make money, and to be free.”

Unlike Eyman, Heywood isn’t trying to make bank off his initiatives — he’s already rich. He’s given more than $750,000 to GOP causes in the past five years, including $150,000 last year to try to repeal the state’s long-term care program (that also failed to get enough signatures).

But now Heywood is taking his make-money-and-be-free bravado and amping it all the way up to 11. In an environment where $3 million just failed to get a single measure on the ballot, his outfit, Let’s Go Washington, has started collecting signatures for 11 initiatives simultaneously.

These are all GOP wish-list proposals, such as cutting gas and sales taxes, divvying up Electoral College votes for president by district rather than by state, and curbing Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency powers. There’s even one called “Make Hard Drugs Illegal” — the opposite of the ACLU’s drug decriminalization measure.

The kicker is that these are initiatives to the Legislature. So if they get enough signatures by December, and then are approved by that body next year, they could pass directly into law. By a constitutional quirk, Inslee would have no opportunity to veto them.

“I think that’s pretty clever,” said Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm, the Republican leader in the state House, when I asked him about this veto end-around. (When he got done chuckling, though, he allowed it likely wouldn’t end up being that simple. For starters, Republicans first have to win both the state House and Senate in this fall’s elections, which hasn’t happened in nearly three decades.)

So … initiatives are in a record drought, but also, here comes 11 of them? Yep, though it’s a longshot. And as payback for Inslee jamming through decisions on COVID without Republicans, now Republicans have concocted a plan to push through laws around him?

Doesn’t seem healthy, but strange things sometimes emerge out of political upheaval. Twenty-five years ago, nobody would have predicted Tim Eyman either.