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Unpacking Government: How Does The Initiative Process Work?


Every time there’s an election, Washington voters are faced with a list of candidates for various offices. But they also usually have to decide on initiatives.


Since 1912, Washington state has allowed citizens to propose laws for enactment by voters, or by the Legislature. The same process gives us the referendum, which essentially lets voters have veto power over the Legislature.


Taking an initiative to the voters requires an idea. Let’s say I believe every store in Washington state that sells chocolate chip cookies should also be required to sell ice cold 2 percent milk.


“The first thing you do is come down to the secretary of state’s office in Olympia, you put down a 5-dollar fee, and you write your proposed law,” says Ralph Munro, Washington’s secretary of state from 1980 to 2000. “And I’ve seen a lot of people write them at the counter.”


Before we go any farther, let me say that I don’t hold high hopes for my milk and cookies initiative. It’s just a ridiculous, delicious example used to illustrate a serious process that has shaped the course of Washington state history for more than a century now.


Making It Happen


If I was serious about this, I’d have have three options to put my issue before voters:


A referendum doesn’t really apply here. It’s meant for voters to have the final say on action taken by the Legislature.


An initiative to the Legislature means the voters decide to introduce a bill in the next session of the Legislature. I’m not interested in that, either.


I’m going to go with an initiative to the people, putting the question of whether my milk and cookies initiative should be law directly to the public.


Credit Erin Hennessey / KNKX
A sign outside the parking garage entrance of the Safeway store in Seattle's Lower Queen Anne neighborhood.

I could test the waters and make this a local initiative, which would make my job significantly easier, but I really want this to be state law. And to get on the statewide ballot, I need 259,622 registered Washington voters to sign my petition. That number is established by law, which requires signatures from 8 percent of the people who voted for governor in the last election.


One more caveat: I only have so much time.


Deadlines And Money


For an initiative to the people, I can’t start circulating petitions until early January, and I have to turn them in before early July.


“That just really is impossible for volunteer groups nowadays,” said Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University who has spent 20 years studying initiatives throughout the United States.


“So if you’re really serious about the milk and cookie initiative, the way these things seem to go now is you find a billionaire who is keen on the issue that might kick in a few hundred thousand dollars to hire a petition management firm,” Donovan said.


In other words, I need to pay people to gather signatures for me. Donovan says the idea that it takes a lot of money to sponsor an initiative goes back to days when timber barons and beer wholesalers were trying to shape law in the early 20th century.


“There’s always been money,” he said. “What’s different now is that a lot of this big money isn’t necessarily the industry itself pushing something on the ballot. It’s these very wealthy people linking up with whoever has an idea.”


The other difference is that while the time period to circulate petitions remains finite, the number of signatures required for the ballot keeps growing. When Ralph Munro became secretary of state in the early 1980s, you needed only about half the number of signatures you need today.


The practice of paying people to gather signatures has been around for a while, and Munro hates it, by the way. He first noticed people being paid to circulate petitions when he was in college in the 1960s. Signature gatherers earned a nickel per signature they collected.


“By the time I came along as secretary of state, in 1980, it was up to about a dollar,” he said. “I was furious about it. Angry. Very angry about it. We actually passed a law against it. And then we were sued by Sherry Bockwinkel who was a professional signature gatherer. She’s still around someplace. She sued us and she won.”


Someplace, for Sherry Bockwinkel, is a lamp store in Tacoma. She’s still working on initiatives.


“It’s kind of fun to beat the secretary of state, somebody as powerful as Ralph Munro,” Bockwinkel said.


She remains supportive of paid signature gatherers, but says to some extent, the practice has gotten out of hand.


“It’s not the petitioners – they deserve to be paid. It’s hard work,” she said. But the problem comes “when you have an unpopular issue and you’re trying to make it look like it’s a grassroots supported issue, and you use that process. And people with a lot of money can say, and people believe, ‘It’s a citizen sponsored initiative.’ Those words ring bells with voters and they go, ‘Oh! The citizens like it.’”


Serious Issues


Citizen initiatives have been around for just 105 years. Half of all initiatives to the people have been filed in the last 15 years, well after Bockwinkel’s court victory allowing paid signature gatherers in the 1990s.


This is all starting to sound pretty complicated, so I asked Bockwinkel if an initiative is still the best way to handle my milk-and-cookies idea.


“Oh, yeah. Skip the lawmakers altogether. You want to go direct democracy,” she said.


And even though I’m using a ridiculous example for my proposed initiative, Bockwinkel says I’m not that far off the mark.


“Way back in the history of initiatives, there was one about margarine,” she said, “and having margarine be yellow.”


That was in 1952. It repealed an earlier law banning the sale of margarine in the state. It was almost literally the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter law.


All of that said, it’s important to recognize that this process deals with some very serious issues. Initiatives and referenda have brought us things like recreational marijuana and same-sex marriage. They’ve also addressed victims’ rights and who can access a gun.


And the process is far from perfect. After the voters pass an initiative, lawmakers can find themselves scrambling to figure out how to pay for it.


Munro says it’s a worthwhile process, despite any faults.


“We are blessed with the type of government we have. It could be used even more as time goes by, as times change and issues change, and so forth,” he said. “I think it’s one of those check-and-balance things that’s really helped.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.