In November 2015, the Referendum and Initiative Project of the King County Bar Association’s Public Policy Committee presented its final report to the KCBA Board of Trustees. KCBA likely will be organizing a forum this year on the issues addressed in the report, as KCBA explores engaging in advocacy on these issues in a long-term way, following the model of the Drug Policy Project in recommending reforms between 2000 and 2008.
In preparing the report, project members met with and solicited information from experts on initiatives and referendums, including individuals from the Office of the Attorney General, the Office of the Secretary of State, the Washington ACLU, and the National Conference of State Legislatures. In addition, members have met with academic experts on referendums and initiatives, as well as experts from professional signature gathering firms, pollsters, and others in the initiative “industry.” The subcommittee’s recommendations are based upon input from these sources, plus extensive independent research conducted by members of the subcommittee.
Beth Bloom chaired the subcommittee and was ably supported by the following subcommittee members in developing the report: John Cary, Eric Christensen, Johanna Coolbaugh, Rory O’Sullivan, Joe Skocilich, Ed Sterner and Dawn Sydney.
The report will be serialized in the next several issues of the Bar Bulletin. (The “parts” in which the report is divided for publication do not expressly conform to sections of the report, but are used only for the sake of convenience, i.e., available space).
The complete report is online at www.kcba.org/publicpolicy.
While direct democracy has been a cornerstone of Washington’s constitution for the last century, the past several years have provided examples of the most problematic characteristics of Washington’s referendum and initiative process. In just the past two years we have seen passage of initiatives that are later found to be unconstitutional, voter confusion regarding the policy impact and the budget impact of initiatives, and a perception that initiatives are a tool of out-of-state special interests. This report proposes a set of reforms to combat those problems and strengthen the initiative process.
1. Reforms to the Referendum and Initiative Development Process
In order to limit the passage of initiatives that are later found to be unconstitutional, the Subcommittee recommends a complete reworking of the initiative pre-ballot certification filing procedure. The Subcommittee recommends that the initial filing period occur much earlier, allowing for a formalized process of public review and potential judicial review prior to the signature gathering stage of the process. The Subcommittee also recommends passage of a constitutional amendment limiting the budget impact of ballot measures, requiring any ballot measure that would entail a significant outlay of public funds to identify the source of the additional revenue needed and any ballot measure that would significantly decrease tax revenue to identify offsetting programmatic cuts.
2. Online/Electronic Signature Gathering
In order to level the playing field between corporate and institutional initiative proponents and grassroots activists seeking access to the ballot and counter the perception that initiatives are simply a tool of well-
financed out-of-state special interests, the Subcommittee recommends the establishment of an online/electronic signature gathering procedure. This proposal would reduce the cost of signature collection, improve the signature verification process, assist with fraud prevention, and give voters the opportunity to make a more informed decision about the measures they sign.
3. Citizen Initiative Review
The Subcommittee recommends the establishment of a Citizen’s Initiative Review (CIR) procedure, based on a model that has proved effective in Oregon. CIR uses the jury as a model in which a group of citizens take time to develop an unbiased evaluation of measures that are scheduled to appear on an upcoming ballot.
4. Other Proposed Reforms
The Subcommittee recommends adopting other minor, but no less important, reforms, such as expanding the time limits for gathering signatures and reviewing and revising the initiative pre-certification, modifying the minimum number of signatures required, imposing mandatory certifications by signature gathering companies, and improving the financial disclosure statement.
Recognizing that any revision of the ballot measure process in Washington is a complex and political process, the Subcommittee has, where appropriate, noted dissenting viewpoints or other barriers to implementation of its proposals.
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