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Initiatives: A Primer

What are initiatives and how do they make the ballot?
Initiatives are public issues to be voted upon by the general public or legislature.  These can be separated into two categories: Initiatives to the People and Initiatives to the Legislature.  As the titles suggest, citizens vote on the first kind, the legislature votes on the second.

Washington State is one of 36 states that allow the public to vote on initiatives (Ballotwatch, 2008).  According to the Washington Secretary of State, “many of our most significant laws, such as our public disclosure law, were enacted by this process” (State, 2008).

In order to get an initiative on the ballot, a registered voter submits a proposal of the initiative to the Secretary of State.  The process costs $5.  Initiatives to both the people and legislature are to be filed ten months before the coming state election.

Each type of initiative is accompanied by a petition that must include signatures “in excess of 8% of the total number of votes cast for the Governor at the last regular state gubernatorial election” (State, 2008).  In other words, in order to submit an initiative for this 2008 election, petitions had to be comprised of over 224,880 signatures (State, 2008).  Unless otherwise noted on the initiative, if passed, it goes into effect thirty days after the election.

Are Initiatives A Good Thing?
There are pros and cons to the initiative process. If used correctly, initiatives are a great example of direct democracy. Citizens are enabled to have a voice in the democratic process and bring issues to a vote that might not otherwise be addressed in a public forum. It also allows us to separate out the most important issues to us and vote as a community, rather than electing one candidate to make all decisions for us.

On the negative side, the issues can be complicated and require considerable research in order to make an educated opinion. We elect officials with faith that they will do the research, know all the facts, and make an educated decision based on the knowledge they have collected. Unless we are confident that the individual voters have done that research on each initiative, they might not all be the most appropriate person to decide big issues.

In addition, the initiative process gives the appearance of being all grassroots issues, put on the ballot by individual citizens to better society.  In reality, lately they seem to represent larger organizations with heavy funding and vested interests.  In other words, at least we are all aware of the excess lobbying that goes on in Congress.  The initiative process appears to be less heavily influenced, but in reality it could turn into something much less genuine than was intended.

Although voter pamphlets are distributed to registered voters by mail, the Secretary of State provides online access to a list of initiatives to the people as well as a list of initiatives to the legislature.

For detailed instructions on how to submit an initiative to be voted upon, see this PDF.

Ballotwatch. (2008). Retrieved October 31, 2008, from Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California: http://www.iandrinstitute.org/ballotwatch.htm

State, F. I. (2008). Filing Initiatives and Referenda in Washington State. Retrieved October 31, 2008, from Secretary of State – Sam Reed: http://www.secstate.wa.gov/elections/pdf/Filing_Initiative_and_Referenda_Manual_2005-2008.pdf

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