By Sid Schwab
A local man who makes a living concocting voter initiatives contacted me recently. Thoughtfully forwarding several articles extolling his personal wonderfulness, he included information on his latest creation, sort of a meta-project, about initiatives. He aims to make the process easier, and suggested that I write about it. Being the neighborly sort, I will. Short version: I don’t love it.
As a happy-to-be American, I share with our founders their reservations about direct democracy. So, evidently, did the early Washingtonians who based our state constitution on the federal one. There’s a reason we have layers between the spur-of-the-moment will of the people and bringing laws into fruition: better laws, our founders believed, result from careful consideration by legislators taking the time to talk things over. It’s by design that our legislative institutions are less whimsy-prone than “we the people” are.
Which is not to say I think our lawmakers consistently do us, or themselves, proud; nevertheless there remains a strong argument for the requirement to think one’s way through an issue, even if it doesn’t always happen. Unfettered, we humans tend to get a little excited.
So whereas I wouldn’t go so far as to say I don’t like the initiative process, I think it ought to be harder, not easier, to supplant the constitutional duties of our legislators, or to circumvent the process by which most laws are made.
Amongst the initiative-easing items in Ey-517, I note with curiosity the inclusion of the word “retaliation” in reference to signer-gatherers. Clearly, the process of collecting signatures must be free of harassment, which is why it’s already illegal to do it. But since names of those who sign are public information, they can’t expect to be shielded from every political consequence of signing up, if that’s the word’s sub rosa intent. Taking heat for taking a stand is, sometimes, part of the deal.
A person has a right to make a living. Still, I dislike the idea of professional initiative writers. The profit motive encourages appealing to our basest and most quick-trigger instincts, because that’s what keeps the cash rolling in. Want to make money making laws? Run for office. Having nothing at stake, initiativendors pay no political price for adverse repercussions of their product. (Which might explain why our neighbor feels free to call our governor a “lying whore.”)
Nor do I think people should be paid to gather or provide signatures. It’s a commitment, not an occupation. Cash corrupts. Not that there’s much anyone can do about it: money is speech. Our courts have told us that.
Being a barely nascent voice, I’m flattered our neighbor contacted me. So here’s how I’d address initiative-making if it were up to me:
1) Initiatives would do a modified Washington state two-step. First would be a petition requiring legislators to address an issue. If it passes, they must do so, choosing, or not, to make law. Overriding their decision would require another initiative, needing a sixty-percent majority for enactment. (A ludicrous part of state law is that school levies can “fail” with 59.99% of the vote, a landslide in any other electoral context. If that’s acceptable [it[‘]s not], then a similar standard for overriding our constitutionally established legislative process ought to be as well. [It would. To me anyway.])
2) It would be prohibited to pay for signatures, gatherers, or signers. Greenbacks ain’t grassroots.
3) Since the names of those who sign petitions are public, peaceful responses to that information, such as calls for boycotts, or permitted picketing, wouldn’t be considered unlawful retaliation. Free speech goes both ways. And it’s already unlawful to hassle them during the signing process.
4) Six months seems like plenty of time to gather signatures. If it’s a good idea, it shouldn’t take a year to convince people. Not to mention that the longer he has, the more initiatives out which my correspondent might well crank. And I have only so much time to spend looking for side doors to supermarkets and sporting events.
5) Rulings on constitutionality would be made before bringing initiatives to vote, saving us money, endless litigation, and the pain of being subjected to donation-inducing, pre-planned, camera-ready outrage when courts do their duty to keep our inclinations within the law. There’s a right way to amend the constitution: initiatives aren’t it.
6) Finally, any initiatives based purely on nastiness, greed, or economic shortsightedness would be preemptively disallowed. And I’d get to be the one who decides.
Sid Schwab lives in Everett. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org