June 2016 Bar Bulletin
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June 2016 Bar Bulletin

Advisory Votes — Your Nonbinding Choice

By Christina Schuck


Sometimes Washington voters look through their ballots and are asked to vote on various measures, but with a large caveat — their choice is non-
binding. In April, the Pierce County Council asked voters living in unincorporated areas if the Council should allow the production, processing and retail sale of marijuana in specified zones.1 The Council asked the voters this question after it passed just such an ordinance.2 Telling the Council their choice cost county taxpayers around $425,000.3

Advisory votes differ from initiatives and referendums. The Washington Constitution guarantees voters the right to legislate through referendums and initiatives, provided they can obtain enough signatures of registered voters on a petition.4 An initiative is direct legislation submitted for a vote of the people at the next state general election or to the Legislature at its next regular session.5 A referendum is a law recently passed by the Legislature and placed on the ballot or proposed laws referred to the voters by the Legislature.6

Both initiatives and referendums bind governments. However, not all municipalities and counties have been granted the powers of initiative and referendum. The authority must come from the state Constitution or in enabling legislation by the State.7 In contrast, an “advisory vote is a nonbinding poll of the citizen population.... There are no statutory or constitutional provisions imposing a city council to call for an advisory vote.”8

Advisory votes are often used at the local level to gauge voter support or opposition to controversial measures. For example, in 1975 Port Angeles asked its voters if the city should fluoridate its water.9 Clark County put six advisory votes on the ballot in 2013 asking for voters’ opinions on potential replacements for the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River, light rail and fireworks.10 Multiple cities and counties have asked voters for their opinions on restricting fireworks in advisory votes, including Kent, Brier, Marysville and Maple Valley.11 Bothell voters will weigh in on the issue of banning fireworks in November’s general election.12

Voters and commentators react to advisory votes differently. Opponents pan advisory votes as “symbolic,” “very expensive push polls,”13 and “crutches used by elected officials ... who lack the resolve to make tough decisions.”14 Supporters appreciate the opportunity to weigh in on the controversial matters and advisory votes make them feel like their voices are heard.15

One reason voters and officials criticize advisory votes is their cost. Getting guidance on the “tough decisions” through an advisory vote does not come cheap. State law requires that the costs of elections be borne by constituencies and every city, town and district is liable for its proportionate share of the costs of elections.16

When a city, town or district holds an election on an “isolated date,” it bears the entire cost of the election.17 The Pierce County advisory vote in April was estimated to cost voters between $250,000 and $425,000.18 The six Clark County advisory votes cost approximately $107,000.19

Advisory votes may not always be instructive to local officials looking for guidance on controversial issues. For example, a close vote, where the electorate is nearly evenly split, may not give much guidance to local officials. Couple a slim margin with low voter turnout and local officials may not feel like they have a mandate or clear guidance.

The turnout for the Pierce County advisory vote in April reached just 30.69 percent, with 52.40 percent voting no and 47.60 percent voting yes.20 Hoping to hear from more voters, Bothell scheduled its fireworks vote for the November general election.21

In the last few years, voters have also been asked for their opinions in statewide advisory votes. The first statewide advisory votes appeared on Washington ballots as a result of a little-noticed provision of Initiative 960, sponsored by Tim Eyman.22 I-960, approved by the voters in 2007 and now codified as RCW § 43.135.041, required a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature to raise taxes.23 A provision in this measure required an advisory vote in the next general election if the Legislature raised taxes and if the measure involved more than one revenue source, each tax was subject to an advisory vote.24 The first state advisory vote was put on the ballot in 2012 and there have been 13 since then.25

Advisory votes ask the voters their choice and then elected officials choose how to use this information.

1 Pierce County Official Voter’s Pamphlet, Special Election, April 26, 2016, available at https://www.co.pierce.wa.us/DocumentCenter/View/40471.

2 Pierce County, Ordinance No. 2015-27s.

3 Reports on the cost of this election have varied from $250,000 to $425,000. Brynn Grimley, “Recreational Pot Coming Back to Pierce County Ballot in 2016,” The News Tribune, December 14, 2015 (auditor estimates election cost at $250,000); Jenna Hanchard, “Some in Pierce County to Vote on Marijuana,” KING.com, April 05, 2016: http://www.king5.com/news/local/some-in-pierce-county-

4 Wash. Const. Art. II § 2(a)-(b).

5 Wash. Const. Art. II § 2(a).

6 Wash. Const. Art. II § 2(b).

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