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Initiate This 

Kurt Weinreich had an idea. In 2001, the thirty-something janitor from Olympia filed with the Secretary of State's office an initiative that would have torn asunder the very fabric and function of the United States. Weinreich proposed to the citizens of Washington that the other Washington -- the District of Columbia -- be politically castrated. That is, as his ballot title suggested, the state should "limit federal laws to the District of Columbia, territories such as Guam, and navigable waters, and provide that federal laws do not apply within the State of Washington."

With a $5 filing fee and a brief application, Weinreich single-handedly hamstrung the federal government -- Congress, the Office of the President, the Supreme Court -- and, it would seem, called for Washington to secede from the Union. "People living within Washington live within one of the 'several states' but not the United States," his ballot measure summary read. Furthermore, "federal laws and agents are limited from operating within Washington and are subject to state prosecutions."

"The federal government can't enforce laws unless [they] affect interstate issues," he says. "I thought an initiative would make people aware of that and enforce that."

A collection of truly independent states at last? No more pointless federal drug convictions? A new civil war? Unfortunately for the states' rights crowd, Weinreich wasn't able to muster the 200,000 or so signatures necessary to get the measure on the ballot, and his grand notion withered in a file cabinet in the Legislative building.

At least it's in good company.

Each year, dozens of citizen initiatives to the people make the rounds on clipboards at festivals, fairs and shopping centers across the state. Those rare successful ones make it through the fall media blitz to the November general election. Some have effected massive change in Washington. It was the initiative process, after all, that banned smoking in businesses and forced political candidates to report their finances.

But for all the Eyman-led, big-ticket initiatives that attract press, there are scores of big ideas that don't have the means or the message to go public.

We dug through the Secretary of State's records to look at the 952 measures that have been proposed since Washington ushered in the initiative process in 1912, and we found a state obsessed with changing itself -- with lowering taxes, restricting booze and legalizing pot, with banning abortion, coloring margarine and fixing its home stereo equipment.

Hey, it only costs $5 to file an initiative to the people. What do you want to talk about?

 

If the 952 initiatives proposed in Washington's history before this year, only 64 have won voter approval. That means that only 7 percent of all the initiatives proposed in the last 92 years have become law.

None of those have come from David Whitman, a blind, former equipment salesman from Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood. With 23 initiatives under his name, he's filed more measures than anybody in Washington history, outside of the Eyman organization. He's fought for a fair tax system, stricter term limits, shorter political campaigns, lower credit card interest rates, abolition of the state's liquor control board and an end to what he calls "seat belt piracy" -- that is, to the $86 fine for failing to wear a seat belt, which, he writes, "will deprive a mother with two or three small children, minimum wages and no child support of more than a day's wages."

The 90-year-old -- who has proposed regulations for locksmiths and called for a $50,000 fine for public officials who are "seen for more than one second with a lobbyist with a substantial expense account" -- pitched so many initiatives in a two-year period that in 2003 he sponsored one stating that "when a sponsor of initiatives submits more than one initiative, one affidavit would be sufficient to identify him/her." One can almost hear the creaking wrists of carpal tunnel syndrome in that sentence.

Still, Whitman insists he's not political, even while he continues to spout new and creative ideas for the state's woes, 25 years after retiring. For instance, he says, nobody should be legally able to inherit more than a million dollars. That, he says, would even the economic playing field. Also, the state should require that all hot water heaters be made of strong stainless steel. "They'd never burn out," he says. "And it doesn't cost a whole hell of a lot more than tin."

Whitman has never placed an initiative on the ballot. (And, as he and his wife plan to move soon to Texas, which has no initiative process, he may never do so.) "I only know so many people," he says. "I get their signatures all right. But that's just a drop in the bucket."

Steve Zemke knows the feeling. The 61-year-old activist and author of a popular lefty blog, Majority Rules, has filed nine initiatives in the last 30 years; he has worked on several more. Most of his ideas have related to the initiative process itself. Among the measures he sponsored that never made it to the ballot: one that would've set up a commission to review all initiatives for constitutionality; another that urged initiatives to supply the full text of the state law they sought to change; another that required any initiative requiring a supermajority to raise taxes to pass by a supermajority itself.

But only once has an initiative he sponsored been approved by voters. That was I-394, in which voters demanded they be allowed to vote before the state issued bonds on massive public energy projects. The 1981 vote was a response to the Washington Public Power Supply System disaster (aptly nicknamed "WHOOPS"), in which the state's pursuit of huge nuclear facilities in Hanford and Satsop produced the biggest municipal bond default in U.S. history. The measure passed 58 percent to 42 percent.

"I don't think initiatives are ever easy," he says. "I think they're lots of hard work."

Whitman and Zemke represent two different kinds of initiative sponsors. Zemke is an engaged political activist and part of a larger organization -- formed from the cast of an earlier failed initiative campaign -- that identifies causes and targets them. Whitman is scattershot, filing initiatives on a dizzying array of topics, without the means to do anything about them. "Maybe it was unrealistic, I suppose," Whitman says. "[But] I think enough people have learned a little bit about this that it might make them think of something else."

But state records show that all kinds of people file initiatives. Some, like Spokane resident Elizabeth Patrick -- who for six years called on the state to cease working with the National Security Agency -- are crusaders, harping on one subject again and again.

Others, it would appear, simply sit down and make lists of all the things that piss them off, then turn them into ballot measures (see initiatives 726 and 965, in the sidebar). For instance, in 1991, Seattle resident Jack Zektzer cobbled together an initiative (569) reading, "Shall Utilities and Transportation regulate some medical service rates, some political contributions be prohibited, and motorcycle helmet requirements be changed?" Either no one ever told Zektzer that he could file multiple initiatives, or he was trying to appeal to a unique medical-regulation, anti-graft, live-free-or-die demographic.

In the 1970s, it was common for state senators and representatives to sponsor initiatives. That hasn't been seen since 1977. Today, initiatives are more commonly peddled by large political action organizations like Tim Eyman's.

The math remains, however: Only one in 15 initiatives wins over Washington voters.

 

Washington is one of the easier states in which to get an initiative on the ballot, requiring signatures equal to 8 percent of the people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. Many of the other 23 states that allow initiatives have significantly higher thresholds. Still, sponsoring a successful initiative is no easy feat.

For starters, initiatives must be filed with the Secretary of State's office in Olympia, which might explain why an overwhelming majority of initiative sponsors come from the west side of the state. The state attorney general and the code reviser then review the initiative and offer advice on wording and structure that will make it conform more easily with existing law. At this point, says state elections director Nick Handy, proposals can be "totally unconstitutional."

But then comes the gathering of signatures.

"We have people coming in all the time filing initiatives with us," Handy says. "Quite frankly, they just have an overly optimistic idea of their ability to get signatures. And quite frankly, it's expensive."

Paying people to gather signatures for your initiative has always been legal in Washington, but it only became the norm around 1999, according to Teresa Glidden with the Secretary of State's office. "Most of the ones that make it on the ballot use paid signature gatherers," Handy says. "There are businesses that are in this business. If you're really serious about your initiative, you're going to go to a signature-gathering firm and pay them, I don't know, $200,000 or $300,000. One dollar a signature is the going rate."

Steve Zemke says paid signature gatherers have changed everything.

"All the initiatives I was involved with, I worked with volunteers," he says. "You set up a grassroots effort and recruit people who wanted to assist and you'd have a state staff that they'd set up to have people literally go out and collect these signatures." He adds that I-960 -- Tim Eyman's latest effort to reduce the state's taxing authority -- is bankrolled by one large donor who put up the money for an army of paid petitioners.

"What you lose is a sense of the grassroots involvement," says Zemke. "When one person can go out and buy the signatures, that sort of initial test you have to pass [of gauging public interest] is no longer there. In the end, it makes their issue harder to pass because they have to spend money to get the word out. When you do it grassroots, you have a network of people around the state advertising it and working to get the measure passed."

But Handy says he doesn't remember the last time he saw an all-volunteer effort. Most campaigns, he and Zemke note, use a combination of paid and volunteer gatherers.

Kurt Weinreich says paid signature gathering is "really kind of a scam" and says he's never tried to get signatures on his initiatives to ban the state bar association, open public records and protect trees on public land. Instead, he's working to change the size of paper required for signature gathering from 11-inches-by-14-inches to regular letter-size paper, which would allow a move to online signature gathering in the form of printable petitions. He'd like to see a clearinghouse on the Secretary of State's Website where you "go shopping" for initiatives that interest you.

"Let's say somebody's trying to save the whales. They could get 20,000 people who want to save the whales. Those same people might want to ban the [state bar association] or legalize marijuana or whatever," he says. "In the Spokane area, let's say someone lives out in Othello or way out in the sticks. They're never going to meet a signature gatherer."

Until then, sponsors of an initiative to the people (as opposed to an initiative to the Legislature) have about six months to gather their signatures the old-fashioned way. Most sponsors will overshoot the minimum number to allow for invalid signatures.

"We pretty much know that the average [rejection] rate [for signatures] is 18 percent," says Handy, who adds that 90 percent of initiatives never get enough signatures turned in.

Those that do then have those signatures randomly checked by the Secretary of State's elections office using a mathematical algorithm. If the random check finds enough legitimate signatures, the initiative is certified to the ballot. If the random check comes up short, the office performs a 100 percent check, scrutinizing every signature. Handy says the process is laborious but rare. Last year, his office performed a 100 percent check on Tim Eyman's latest effort to cap vehicle registration fees at $30 last year. It took five weeks for 30 employees running two eight-hour shifts to go through 267,000 signatures. In the end, Eyman didn't have enough.

Before that, Handy says, it had been 10 years since the last manual check.

Once an initiative is certified to the November ballot, then begins the media campaign, an area where Eyman and Spokane residents Jack and Mike Fagan have historically excelled: calling costumed press conferences, using big rhetoric and generally upstaging the Legislature and the governor's office. But even Eyman admits that the process isn't a cakewalk.

"It's really tough," he says. "It's like you start a small business, [say, a laundromat]. It usually takes you three or four years to establish yourself and become profitable. [But] you have to have it up and running in three or four months. [Then], if you manage to be successful ... suddenly you are attacked by all your rivals. Then the press gets on you. And all you're [trying to do is start] a laundromat."

If you've made it this far, though, you have a statistical curiosity on your side. Of the 128 initiatives that have made the ballot since the process began, exactly 50 percent have been approved by voters. After months of hard work, then, there's a one-in-two chance that your pet project becomes state law.

Still, even a failed initiative can stir change.

"The thing about the process is that even the ones that didn't [pass], you would find you would shift state policy," says Steve Zemke. "We didn't get the bottle bill passed [in 1966], but they decided maybe they better put more effort into recycling in the state. When we did the Growth Management initiative [in 1990], the governor and the legislators said, 'If voters don't pass this, we'll pass something in the Legislature.' Lo and behold, the next year they passed basically everything we proposed in the initiative."

Winton Cannon is the chairman of the League of Washington Tax Payers, a citizen group whose professed aim is to "reduce property taxes to a lesser ... fairer ... and more reasonable level." He filed nine initiatives (some duplicates) between 1997 and 2000, calling for a repeal of current tax rates on property and vehicles. Yet he never brought any signatures to Olympia. And he's OK with that.

"The purpose of our initiatives has been to build a structure of people who are aware of the tax situation and are willing to work on that," he says. "We'll take people first and money second."

Plus, it was a workshop he taught on the initiative process that brought Spokane citizen activists Jack and Mike Fagan into state politics and a relationship with Tim Eyman.

Initiative 695, which set license tab fees at a flat $30, was Eyman's and the Fagans' first success. It's also another example of how an initiative can fail and still succeed (and then fail again). Approved 56 percent to 44 percent in November of 1999, the initiative was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court the next year. However, it was made law by the Legislature in the meantime. Ever since, the Legislature has slowly found ways to add back on to the cost of tabs -- what Mike Fagan calls "tab creep" -- in an effort to restore some of the transportation funding lost in the process.

Despite the legal topsy-turvy, I-695 galvanized the Eyman organization. "We developed a core of supporters that believe in what we're doing and have stuck with us," says Mike Fagan.

Eyman takes another tack. "The reason we've been successful is because we listen very carefully to what taxpayers are saying. They've made it very clear that they want some reasonable restraints on taxes."

Elections director Nick Handy agrees about the importance of the subject. "There are some measures that are right for the time and they resonate with voters and they pass," he says. "There are some measures that are too complex. People don't understand it -- they tend to fail. Initiatives that tend to pass are ones that that have a very simple clean message: 'Open government.' 'Reduce taxes.'"

 

Handy has hit on something there -- it's clear from state records that the favorite message of Washington voters (or at least the state's initiative sponsors) is "reduce taxes." Of the 952 initiatives we examined, fully one-third dealt with taxes -- especially property taxes. The category dwarfs the number of initiatives given to non-tax state budget issues, governmental structure and oversight, and liquor (a surprisingly popular topic for much of the 20th century).

The second-most popular category for initiative sponsors is elections -- in particular, the initiative process. Some 20 separate measures have been filed on the process: threats aimed at politicians who would try to weaken it; a 2006 effort to prohibit so-called "dangerous" initiatives and referendums; and proposals to ban paid signature gathering. (Ironically, this last one didn't get enough signatures.)

And initiative sponsors aren't the only ones concerned. "There hasn't been a year that's gone by in the last nine that the Legislature hasn't tried to throw a monkey wrench in the mechanisms of how the process works," says Mike Fagan. Handy, too, notes that Olympia has made several efforts to change the process, including raising the filing fee from $5 to a prohibitive $100, or even $500. "That's been seen as a chilling effect [on free speech]," he says.

 

Washingtonians continue to agree to disagree over the merits of the initiative system, but it's clear that it's only getting more popular. State records show filings have skyrocketed in the last 10 to 15 years, based largely, some -- like Handy -- suspect, on the high-profile antics of Tim Eyman and his organization. "It's certainly an active part of the election process. I think he's made it more prominent."

Still, the approval rate hasn't shown a corresponding increase. While the number of initiatives filed has skyrocketed in the last decade, the number that make the ballot and gain voter approval has remained fairly flat. That means there are more weird cast-off initiatives than ever.

To those -- like Whitman and Weinreich -- still looking for the right combination of message and means, Tim Eyman says patience is key. "Our secret weapon is persistence," he says. "We just keep coming back again and again and again. We're like rain in Seattle. You can complain about it, but it's not going anywhere."

 

This story originally misidentified the Tim Eyman-led initiative that required a 100 percent signature check last year.

 

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