Fuck the Vote
The Initiative Process Is Turning Washington State into a Destitute Shithole
Anybody who dares to defend the modern initiative process as a net plus for Washington State is either a total fucking idiot or a morally reprehensible piece of shit who puts their own selfish self-interest ahead of the commonweal.
Honestly. I mean it.
What populist reformers intended a century ago as a constitutional safety valve against the powerful political interests of railroad barons and banking tycoons has long since been perverted, transformed by population growth and a series of bullshit money-is-speech court rulings into a political plaything for corporations and wealthy special interests. It's been seven years since the last all-volunteer initiative campaign managed to worm its way onto a Washington ballot—the (ultimately losing) fuel-tax-repeal Initiative 912—and even then, it was the exception that proved the rule. It now takes an army of paid signature gatherers, mostly migrant mercenaries who roam from state to state, to gather the several hundred thousand signatures necessary to qualify for Washington's ballot.
The minimum cost? A million dollars. And at that price, only a person or organization with many millions more at stake is willing and able to put their pet legislation before voters.
Take, for example, our state's most famous political whore, Tim Eyman, who helped pioneer the professionalization of Washington's initiative industry. Eyman has no true grassroots support or organization to speak of, and his usual sugar daddies—head-up-his-ass investment banker Michael Dunmire and anti-rail loony Kemper Freeman Jr.—appeared to be sitting this cycle out. So for a while, I'd been hopeful that Eyman wouldn't raise the money necessary to buy his way onto this year's ballot.
Then Big Oil rode to Eyman's rescue. Last month, ConocoPhillips and Gulf-of-Mexico- defiling BP donated $100,000 each to Initiative 1185, the latest incarnation of Eyman's campaign to require a two-thirds vote of the state legislature to impose any tax increases (which, considering the extreme partisanship in Olympia, makes any tax increase virtually impossible). According to a recent Eyman e-mail, oil refining giants Tesoro and Equilon have followed suit, contributing another $100,000 and $50,000, respectively. Hundreds of thousands of additional oil dollars seem sure to follow in this naked effort to prevent legislators from raising taxes on, you know, oil.
As if Eyman isn't oily enough.
But that's how these things work. In 2011, Eyman's campaign committee spent $1.4 million on Initiative 1125, which would have blocked light rail across the I-90 floating bridge, $1.1 million of the money coming from car-loving/mass-transit-hating/Bellevue Square–owning Freeman. In 2010, it was Big Oil and Freeman who largely funded Eyman's previous two-thirds-supermajority-imposing Initiative 1053 (legislators can suspend or amend an initiative by a simple majority vote after two years, so every two years, Eyman runs this stinker again), and in 2009, it was Dunmire and Freeman who funded Eyman's failed property-tax-limiting Initiative 1033. And so on.
But of course, it's more than just Eyman and his backers who are burying the so-called "citizens" initiative process under a shit-pile of corporate cash. In 2010, two beverage associations (largely front groups for Coke and Pepsi) contributed 99.99 percent of the $16.5 million spent on Initiative 1107's successful repeal of a pennies-a-can tax on soft drinks. Union local SEIU 775NW spent more than $2.2 million—twice—passing initiatives requiring training and certification of the home health-care workers the union represents, first in 2008 and again in 2011. Local warehouse retail giant Costco spent more than $24 million over two campaign cycles successfully dismantling Washington's state liquor store system. And just last week, kajillionaire venture capitalist Nick Hanauer pledged at least a million dollars to an effort to put a charter schools initiative on the ballot, a proposal rejected by voters in 1996, 2000, and 2004, but which really rich people like Hanauer really, really love, so why not spend the money to try again? Hey... it worked for Costco!
What started as a populist reform has turned into a corporatist end-run around the legislative process, with disastrous results for our state budget. It undermines our ability to fund schools, health care, road construction, and other shit we need—thanks to the structural revenue deficit these antitax initiatives sustain.
Oh sure, we still get to vote on these "safety valve" initiatives, but only if rich people choose to put them before us. Of the 43 initiatives and referenda to come before voters since 2000, only two—I-912 and 2000's anti-animal-trapping I-713—had the grassroots support to reach the ballot largely on the strength of volunteer signature gatherers. The rest? They've been totally bought. More than $220 million has been spent for and against state ballot measures since 2000, with 24 becoming law. "You don't always win if you have the money," says state representative Mary Lou Dickerson (D-Seattle), "but you stand a much better chance if you do."
Voters of all political stripes like to complain about politicians being for sale, but thanks to the lack of contribution limits on initiative campaigns, it's our own signatures that have become the hot commodity.
Even the initiatives I support make the ballot only thanks to gobs and gobs of cash from wealthy special interests, hence the differing fates of two competing pot-legalizing initiatives for which signatures were gathered in 2011. I-502, an initiative to the legislature that was placed on this November's ballot, spent more than $757,000 on signature gathering, the bulk of the money coming from a handful of wealthy donors, more than $430,000 coming from out of state. At the same time, Sensible Washington raised only $40,000 in support of I-1149, and of course failed to gain the ballot after attempting a futile volunteer-only signature gathering drive.
"The process has basically become the province of the well-financed, and it's as true of SEIU as it is of Costco," I-1149 organizer Philip Dawdy told me, stating the obvious. And I-502's campaign manager, ACLU drug policy director Alison Holcomb, doesn't really disagree, bluntly answering "No" when asked if they could have qualified their initiative without paid signature gatherers. Holcomb says the "overwhelming majority" of I-502's signatures came from paid canvassers. "The signature threshold is just incredibly high," says Holcomb, who described the ACLU as a "reluctant practitioner" in the process.
"This was a tough call," Holcomb continues. "Ideally, you would have your elected officials addressing social issues that citizens care about. We're reluctantly using the safety valve, I think in the way that it was intended, but it was not something we took lightly."
For his part, Dawdy has fewer complaints with "direct democracy" than he does with the cost of exercising it. "I would love for it to be cheaper for your average group of activists to get something on the ballot," says Dawdy.
But there is nothing either direct or democratic about a process in which Michael Dunmire can get an initiative on the ballot, Kemper Freeman can get an initiative on the ballot, BP can get an initiative on the ballot, Costco can get an initiative on the ballot, Coke and Pepsi can get an initiative on the ballot, and, yes, even a well-funded labor union or supposedly progressive millionaire can get an initiative on the ballot.
But me? What if I want to put a measure before voters? Well, I'm neither a millionaire nor a big corporation nor some other wealthy fucking special interest, so fuck me!
You and I have less right to participate in Washington's political process than some out-of-state corporation, and that's just totally fucked up. It's indefensible. It cannot be justified. And only idiots, liars, or tools would even attempt to try.
An up-or-down vote on an initiative written in Tim Eyman's bonus room, cast by an electorate informed only by what they've seen on TV, is simply a stupid fucking way to write and pass legislation, even given the best intentions. So don't give me any of this shit about honoring "the will of the people": (A) Our politicians and pundits couldn't give a flying fuck about the will of the people, absent the threat of some selfish fucking millionaire or corporation ready to spend big to reinforce it in the next election, and (B) the people generally don't know what the fuck they want! In 2000, voters overwhelmingly approved expensive initiatives to reduce class size and increase teacher pay—on the exact same ballot they passed a tax-slashing Eyman initiative! And they complain about our elected officials being incompetent?
The plain truth: The will of the people is often wrong.
Representative Dickerson has a few ideas for reform, including requiring signature gatherers be registered Washington voters, making signature gatherers identify themselves on the petitions, and better educating the public on initiatives and the process. All that might do less harm. But I don't think that will do squat.
Make me Benevolent Dictator for a day, and I'd fix the initiative process by getting the fuck rid of it (along with judicial elections... my god, most voters just throw darts at the fucking ballot, so what's the point?), but short of that, there's really nothing substantive we can do to protect ourselves from wealthy self-serving assholes abusing the process to buy themselves custom-crafted legislation. A constitutional amendment reining in the initiative process would be futile (no Washington electorate ever voted for less democracy), and as long as the courts insist that money has more free speech rights than actual speech, making contribution limits impossible, no statutory fix can slow the Eymanization of Washington politics.
In other words: We're totally fucked. Or rather, you're totally fucked. My daughter graduates high school in a few years, and when she does, I get to escape this libertarian hellhole and head back to civilization before Washington completes its transformation into California-with-crappy-weather.
But go ahead, initiative supporters, tie yourselves in knots trying to explain why B-fucking-P's right to buy its way onto our ballot is good for our democracy or something, you stupid fucking delusional political pinheads. As far as I'm concerned, you can take your pathetic state and its pathetic it-was-good-enough-for-1912-so-it's-good-enough-for-me constitution and shove it up your money-worshipping/corporate-kowtowing big-oil-lubricated ass.