Washington state’s voter initiative process is in need of reform

October 7, 2011 

The voter initiative/referendum process, as manifested in Washington state today, is deeply flawed and in need of serious reform.

As originally passed into law in 1912 the initiative/referendum process was a populist/progressive attempt to correct the excesses of a government then perceived as unresponsive to the common citizen and too beholden to monied interests.

As practiced today, plagued now itself by a too narrow responsiveness to populist anti-government interests and monied interests, the initiative process serves more often to amplify mistrust in government and to undercut our institutions.

I believe that we can and should maintain the initiative/referendum process as yet another public voice in government. This can only be successfully accomplished, however, by first reconciling the initiative process, a manifestation of direct democracy, with our republican, i.e. representative, form of government through reform.

The first flaw with the current initiative process is that the normal legislative process can be circumvented. This is certainly by design but isn’t necessarily desirable. The normal legislative process, however slow and halting, requires a lot of work, deliberation, compromise, and deal making in order to get legislation created and passed.

All of this work is done by representatives of people all over the state. Everyone is represented. No one gets everything they want, and the process is difficult and time consuming.

The initiative process allows a narrow section of the population, i.e. a simple majority of a small portion of the total population (i.e. those who voted), to potentially make changes to our collective government out of proportion with their actual numbers. All this with little debate and few checks and balances.

The flaw can be mitigated in part by limiting the scope of voter initiatives. The Legislature can, with effort, amend the constitution, for example, to exempt critical functions of government (e.g. revenue collection and allotment) from the process. This would retain the ability of citizens to have a direct voice in government without hobbling its ability to actually govern.

The second flaw is poorly written initiatives without due consideration of downstream consequences or impacts to other legislation.

Again, in the normal process legislation is reviewed and scrutinize at length at every step of the process in an attempt to achieve reasoned and workable laws. Even with this process mistakes are made and problems caused.

The initiative process has far fewer processes and checks to ensure a quality product.

One way to address this would be more active legislative and judicial review. Currently, especially in the case of the judiciary, voter initiatives are given wide latitude in deference to the will of voters at least as regards constitutionality. Only recently has the judiciary started to closely scrutinize and enforce the constitutionality of voter initiatives.

Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695, which was ruled to have violated the constitution’s single-subject rule for each initiative, is an example of this.

Finally, the cumulative effect of these flaws is to undercut our chosen form of national government. The contemporary drive toward an ever more directly democratic government runs counter to the founding fathers voice in the matter.

In the Federalist Papers and elsewhere, men like James Madison argued long and eloquently about the relative merits of republican government and democratic. And after considering all the arguments they settled on republican (i.e. representative) government.

They felt strongly enough about it to add a guarantee clause in the constitution guaranteeing states a “Republican form of government.” And it works, however imperfectly, to protect rights, restrain factionalism, and to protect against the “shortcomings of human nature ”in a way that direct democracy cannot.

Kevin Deleon, a employee of the state of Washington and of the Washington Army National Guard, is a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel. He can be reached KreggieD@aol.com.

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