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caption: I-1491 supporters deliver signatures in Olympia on Thursday.
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I-1491 supporters deliver signatures in Olympia on Thursday.
Credit: Washington Secretary of State

Fall ballot in Washington to be crowded with initiatives

Backers of I-1515, the initiative to restrict which bathrooms transgender people can use, have told Washington state officials they will not turn in signatures by the Friday midnight deadline. Even with that initiative falling by the wayside, a bumper crop of six initiatives appears headed for the November ballot statewide.

Many voters will face even busier ballots with local measures like Sound Transit's $54 billion package of rail and bus projects added in.

Signature gatherers have been pounding the pavement in search of Washington voters' autographs. Some of the gatherers are volunteers who believe in a cause, but most of them are workers paid as much as $6 a signature.

This year's panhandlers of penmanship have made more than $1.5 million, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission — and that's before the final signature push of the past month. (The latest monthly dollar figures come out on July 11.)

Calabasas, California-based firm PCI Consultants and its itinerant petition wielders have already made $800,000 gathering Washington voters' signatures for at least four initiative campaigns this year.

"A whole industry has grown up around initiatives," Portland-based political consultant Jennie Bowser said.

Washington Public Disclosure Commission filings show signature gatherers coming from as far as Spearfish, South Dakota, and Beverly Hills, California, to work on this years' campaigns.

I-735, which urges amending the U.S. Constitution to limit money in politics, has already earned a spot on the November ballot. So has I-732, a carbon tax backed by the grassroots group CarbonWA but shunned by the state's biggest environmental groups.

Other initiatives had appointments Thursday and Friday to turn in their required 246,372 signatures to the Washington Secretary of State's office:

  • I-1433, a union-backed measure to raise the state minimum wage from $9.47 to $13.50 per hour
  • I-1464, a measure backed by national activists to publicly fund election campaigns and limit corporate funding
  • I-1491, a gun-control measure backed by New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg and local billionaire Nick Hanauer
  • I-1501, a union-backed measure to increase penalties for identity theft and fraud against seniors

Election officials still need to certify that each campaign has enough valid signatures.

If they do, this year's ballot would tie the 2000 and 2010 ballots for having the most initiatives in the past hundred years. Only once, in 1914, did the state have more initiatives on the ballot, with a total of seven.

Special Interests Take Over

University of Washington political scientist Mark Smith said populist discontent gave us the initiative system that Washington and 23 other states now have.

"There was a sense around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th that the political system was controlled by elites, that special interests had taken over. They had too much power in the legislature," Smith said.

Sound familiar?

"The idea was, let's figure out a way to bypass the legislature, to involve the people in some means other than just voting for candidates," Smith said. "How about we have them vote directly on proposed laws?"

More than a century later, with paid signature gatherers, it doesn't take a good or popular idea to get on the ballot, just money.

"A certain number of people will sign an initiative petition almost regardless of the content," Smith said. "Certain people, if they're going to the grocery store, or the mall or whatever, they don't want to be bothered. And it becomes a numbers game: if you ask enough people, you will get your way on the ballot."

Consultant Jennie Bowser, who has studied ballot measures for the National Council of State Legislatures, said special interests have found a way to take over what was intended as a populist reform.

"You see corporations and interest groups sponsoring initiatives that will enrich them, and that, I think, is contrary to the very spirit that the initiative arose from," she said. "The initiative started in the West, and the initiative was meant to be a way for citizens to go around the legislature when the legislature wouldn't act because they were in the grip of the railroads and other industries."

The Wild West of money in politics

Five of this year's six Washington initiatives have already raised more than $1 million each. Altogether, backers have poured about $10 million into this year's initiative campaigns, with much more money expected to flow as campaigns ramp up their advertising and other campaigning.

Most of the money to date has come from:

  • billionaires, including Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer and Nick Hanauer;
  • labor unions, including SEIU-775, the sole funder of I-1501; and
  • out-of-state interests. Integrity Washington, the political committee backing clean-elections I-1464, has received most of its funding from outside the state, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission.

"Money in initiative campaigns is almost entirely unregulated," said Bowser, who calls initiatives the Wild West of money in politics. "There are no limits in any state on how much you can contribute to an initiative or how much a campaign can spend."

“Campaign finance can be limited only if there is the potential to unduly influence the decisions that get made after,” Wendy Underhill with the National Council of State Legislatures said. “Since a ballot measure isn’t a person, you can’t have the reality or appearance of corruption.”

The one time Washington state had more initiatives on the ballot? The voters of 1914 rejected most of them. But they did agree — led by female voters who had gained the right to vote just four years earlier — to prohibit the sale of "intoxicating liquors." Prohibition became the law of the land for nearly two decades.

Correction July 12, 2016, 2:00 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the launch of the group Integrity Washington.