Hubert G. Locke, former dean of the Daniel J. Evans Graduate School of Public Affairs at the UW, has a guest column in the Seattle P-I, arguing that we have an “imperfect initiative system worth keeping.” He particularly singles out Tim Eyman for the way he has abused the process, turning it into a lucrative business.
Eyman’s hijinks are such that one is tempted to think about scuttling the entire business. While that would be a mistake, the larger one is allowing this political wild card to continue running amok, trumping the legislative process and, for all practical purposes, wielding a personal veto over well-considered government decisions.
Personally, I don’t share Prof. Locke’s faith in the initiative system, and remain convinced that it almost always results in language inferior to that produced by a deliberative, legislative process. But I’m enough of a pragmatist to understand that eliminating the initiative process entirely is simply not politically realistic.
So how do we stop “this political wild card” from “running amok,” short of taking Timmy out behind the wood shed and shooting him? (Also not a politically viable solution.) We need some initiative reforms to directly address the most blatant abuses of the last few years, and here’s a few suggestions in no particular order.
Ban paying per signature
The overwhelming majority of signatures are gathered by paid workers, who currently earn a street price of anywhere from $0.75 to $3.00 per signature, depending on the time of year and the competition. This not only encourages outright signature fraud, it discourages petitioners from actually taking the time to educate signers about the issues. (Most signature gatherers are paid mercenaries who carry petitions for several initiatives at once.)
I’d prefer to ban paid signature gathering entirely, but the courts have already said no. Oregon requires signature gatherers to be paid hourly, and so should we.
Restrict content on petitions
Tim Eyman is a liar, and his petitions are filled with lies. For example he once titled a 25% property tax cut initiative with the bold headline: “No New Income Tax!” That’s just plain wrong.
Since we surely don’t want government censures approving editorial content, the solution is to eliminate it entirely. The law already strictly lays out required elements, such as signature lines, ballot title, ballot summary, and certain notices. Those should be the only elements legally allowed on a petition.
The current mix of proscribed legalistic elements and lying, propagandist bullshit can only serve to confuse voters as to the actual intent of the initiative. Let’s just give potential signers what they’ll see on the ballot, and not leave room for any lies.
Allow legal challenges prior to the ballot
With the notable exception of my initiative to proclaim Tim Eyman a horse’s ass, the general legal rule is that initiatives are not ripe for challenge until after they have been approved by voters. At the time of the AG’s humorless scope challenge of my initiative, I wrote that I wouldn’t have minded so much if such policy were applied uniformly. And that’s exactly what we need to do.
Citizens should have the right to challenge any initiative on grounds that it violates the constitution or federal law, and petition the courts to bar it from the ballot… and voters should have a right to know that when they approve an initiative it will actually become law. Our recent history of initiatives being tossed out by the courts after the fact, only serves to undermine public trust in politics; a little pre-ballot vetting would do the process good.
No, it wouldn’t necessarily prevent lying schemers like the EFF from running cynical, political stunts like their voter purge initiative, but it would force them to draft a measure that is at the very least, legal. Our supposedly hallowed system of “direct democracy” should require a little effort.
Create incentives for filing initiatives to the legislature
We should increase the number signatures required to file an initiative to people, and decrease the number required to file an initiative to the legislature, thus providing a substantial incentive for initiative sponsors to pursue the latter.
Of the two, initiatives to the legislature are by far the more reasoned and deliberative process, as they require the legislature to hold hearings and debate the initiative, or put it on the ballot… with or without a proposed alternative. This gives the average citizen (with half a million dollars to buy signatures) the opportunity to force the legislature to address an issue, but potentially gives voters more than just a simple up or down vote on a measure drafted entirely by some angry watch salesman sitting in the bonus room of his Mukilteo McMansion.
Charge a reasonable filing fee
Tim Eyman files dozens of initiatives a year, and while each one costs taxpayers thousands of dollars to process, Timmy only pays a $5.00 filing fee. That’s ridiculous.
The Sec. of State should be able to charge a reasonable fee — say, $150.00 — waived or refunded upon submission of a reasonable number of signatures. We charge candidates much more to file for office… I suppose to discourage frivolous filings. Well, in recent years the SOS’s office has been inundated with frivolous filings, and the best way to discourage this is to require sponsors to put a little bit of effort (or money) up front.
Anyway, those are a few of my suggestions for initiative reform. I’d love to hear yours.