April 2014 Bar Bulletin
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April 2014 Bar Bulletin

Making the Initiative System More Accessible to Voters

By Ian Franzel


"The initiative's only limitation is that it cannot be used to amend the State Constitution."1 Despite this assurance from the Washington secretary of state, it does not take much effort to identify additional limitations on the average person's use of our state's initiative system. For people who do not have careers working around legislation every day, what can be done to foster an increased interest, understanding and participation in this process?

Some of the going theories are that the initiative system is run by special interests, e.g., Costco privatized liquor, or that fair initiatives are blockaded by legal proceedings that the average person does not understand, e.g., what happened with the red-light cameras? Once something is on the ballot, how is campaign spending controlled?

I always found campaign finance reform to be fascinating and important, but have not yet had a chance to dedicate the time to developing my own command of those laws or the impetus to do any major research on them. But first, how does one get an initiative on the ballot?

To qualify for placement on the ballot, the filer must obtain a number of signatures from registered voters equal to 8 percent of the number of votes cast for the office of governor in the last regular gubernatorial election. Right now, that number is 246,372 valid signatures; that amount being based on the numbers from the 2012 general election.2

It is estimated that the cost of gathering these signatures has increased four-fold in the last 15 years; a cost that was roughly $340,000 in 1999 is now roughly $1.4 million.3 Another common criticism of our initiative system is that "the time to manually collect signatures has remained the same at six months. Oregon allows two years; Idaho a year and a half."4 The six-month timeframe was the deadline put into place when the initiative system was enacted into law in 1912 in the wake of Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive movement.5

The requirements for initiatives at the city level are effectively the same as the requirements for a state-level initiative.6 I would hazard a possibly optimistic guess that most lawyers in this state can envision what the initiative process looks like and we can sympathize with the fact that putting an initiative on the ballot requires a large investment of elbow grease and an expense account with money in it. But how many of us and our peers are up to speed on trial court litigation concerning whether a certain cause can appropriately be submitted as a ballot initiative?

Litigation over the implementation of traffic cameras in Washington has increased during the last five years and serves as a good example of how the initiative process can be implemented on a small or local scale.7 This is a specialized topic in and of itself, but a quick recap of this issue also provides a good lens through which to view the ability of the average voter to understand an initiative campaign, and that even when successful, the results are often uncertain.8

In Mukilteo Citizens, an initiative to ban red-light cameras was presented at the city level and it was passed by roughly 71 percent of the voters.9 An interested party contested the appropriateness of the initiative by suing to block it in the Superior Court and lost.10 On direct review, the Washington Supreme Court reasoned that the subject of red-light cameras is beyond the scope of the initiative power, thus allowing for the interested party to effectively win.11

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