In Seattle, voting on an initiative about … initiatives

no 517 logoyes 517 logoSome of you who visit this space regularly know that I became New To Seattle in 2011 from the Los Angeles area.  Two years ago this very week, I wrote that one thing I thought I was leaving behind–besides sun–was “the famously crazy California system of voter referendums and initiatives on inane, politically charged topics accompanied by big-money advertising campaigns full of outrageous omissions and deceptions.” I then confessed my utter lack of knowledge about my new place of habitual abode as I confronted a ballot full of questions about liquor, highway tolls and car taxes surrounded by lies, damn lies, and videotaped lies.

Things haven’t gotten much better for Election Day this year. As I wrote recently, one statewide ballot measure, requiring labeling of genetically modified food, is being waged largely through false advertising funded by vast amounts of special-interest money from out of state. In what looks like a Washington State-only scheme, there will be five non-binding, “advisory” votes on tax increases that the Legislature recently enacted. Their wording and meaning are so obscure–and meaningless–that state officials have been swamped by calls from puzzled voters.

There even will be an initiative on … initiatives! In many ways, Initiative 517, as it is known, is the most interesting of all the questions, and not only because it would amend a historic, century-old process (largely absent east of the Mississippi) born out of populist, anti-corporation politics. It’s because of one man little unknown outside of Washington State, but whose name here is a household word.

His name is Tim Eyman (pronounced EYE-min). He is a 47-year-old professional referendum-and-initiative campaigner. True, he has a conservative political philosophy–anti-tax, anti-big-government, anti-affirmative action–which the causes he pushes tend to reflect. But his main cause seems to be making a decent living for himself. From what I can tell, over the past decade or so, he has pulled down upwards of $1 million in fees for his services, and not always leveling with the voters and his political partners.

Within This Washington, Eyman, a Yakima native who lives in the Seattle suburb of Mukiltio, is a controversial fellow. One of the kinder things said about him is “initiative profiteer.” He is routinely called a liar–once a “very convincing liar.”  In 2011 State Democratic Party chairman Dwight Pelz actually likened Eyman to herpes: “Just when you think it’s gone, it comes back.”

The political establishment from both spectrums tend to stay away from Eyman. Newspaper editorial pages generally urge voters to reject his efforts. To lampoon him, a rival activist in 2003 actually started an initiative in which voters would decide officially whether Eyman is “a horse’s ass.” (A judge struck down that effort before it reached a vote.) One website run by his many opponents features an entertaining song blaming his tax-cutting efforts for the collapse earlier this year of an Interstate 5 bridge north of Seattle.

Eyman is quite capable of defending himself, and does. Besides the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he frequently quotes the section of the Washington State Constitution that reads, “The first power reserved by the people is the initiative.”  His stock answer to enemies:  “Let the voters decide.” He has sold Bobble-head images of himself to raise money for his efforts. But for I-517 he has been laying low, perhaps because the obvious economic self-interest he has in the measure makes him more of a target than usual.

By one count, not including I-517, since 1998 Eyman has been behind 20 state-wide public votes: 1 referendum (which seeks to overturn a law passed by the Legislature) and 19 initiatives (which propose new laws with or without the Legislature’s consent). From the standpoint of ultimate results, his track record hasn’t been stellar. Of the 21 measures, only four were passed by voters and are still in effect. The rest either failed to make the ballot, lost at the polls, were declared unconstitutional or in one case was overridden by the Legislature under a state constitutional provision allowing that after two years.  But it’s hard to deny his long-term influence. He is a Washington State original.

If passed (and upheld by the courts), I-517, which Eyman got on the ballot by collecting 346,906 signatures, likely would help him a lot. He would be able to crank out a lot more measures–with accompanying fundraising. I-517 could be Eyman’s 401(k).

For starters, the measure would increase the signature-collection period from six months to a year (itself not unprecedented; some states allow up to two years). The law would require officials to allow a public vote on any local initiative (covering just a single city or county as opposed to state-wide) meeting the time and signature requirements even if the initiative would be clearly outside local authority. Indeed, it was voter opposition to the imposition in some cities of red light traffic tickets by cameras (the state Supreme Court ruled this wasn’t a proper subject for a public vote) that gave Eyman his opening here.

But perhaps the two most controversial provisions are these: The first would make would make it a criminal disorderly person offense to interfere with anyone soliciting signatures or signing a petition. The definition in the measure of interference is pretty broad, including “yelling, screaming, being verbally abusive … or maintaining an intimidating presence within 25 feet.” That might include taking cell phone photos or shouting “Stay away from that wacko!” from a distance less than that needed for a first down.

The second would require that petition-gatherers be allowed to operate inside “public buildings” and “in front of the entrances and exits of any store.” This language is fuzzy or undefined enough that a court some day could construe “public buildings” to mean any facility open to the public, including privately owned ones like office buildings and shopping malls. That has alarmed business interests–occasional past allies of Eyman on some tax issues–who see I-517 as a potential infringement on private property rights.

Both sides seem to be exaggerating the possible harm from passage or defeat of I-517. Given the large number of public questions I am being asked to weigh hereabouts, it doesn’t look to me like citizen access to the ballot is a huge problem. Still, despite all the establishment opposition, the last poll I saw had yes on I-517 ahead by a huge margin. Washingtonians like to ridicule California, but maybe they have a secret envy for the kind of fantasy whipped up in Disneyland and Hollywood. Welcome to Eymanland.

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