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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

A presidential year without a statewide initiative to the people? A first since 1928 in Washington.

Austin Jenkins
NW News Network
In this file photo from 2018, anti-tax activist Tim Eyman holds a news conference after dropping off petitions for his last car tab reduction ballot measure.

For the first time since Herbert Hoover won the presidency nearly a century ago, the state of Washington won’t have a statewide initiative to the people on the November ballot in a presidential election year.

At the Secretary of State’s office, the 5 p.m. Thursday deadline to submit 259,622 valid voter signatures to qualify an initiative came and went quietly. No campaigns made an appointment to drop off petitions, according to a spokesperson.

A review of Washington’s initiative history reveals that not since 1928 has the November ballot been bereft of an initiative to the people in a year when voters were electing a president. 

While not quite as dramatic, Oregon voters may see the fewest ballot measures in half a century with just two statewide initiatives and two measures referred by the Legislature, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. Already, a measure to make Oregon the first state to decriminalize small amounts of drugs like heroin and cocaine and fund drug treatment has qualified. A separate measure to allow the therapuetic use of psilocybin mushrooms in clinical settings could also qualify for the ballot. A third measure to create a new redistricting committee was not expected to muster enough signatures by Thursday’s deadline.

Washington and Oregon are among 14 states that allow direct initiatives to the people without first going to the Legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two additional states, Alaska and Wyoming, allow direct initiatives, but only after the Legislature has adjourned for the year. 

In Washington, the last non-presidential, even-election year without a statewide initiative to the people was 1986 and 2017 was the last odd-year election year without one.

This year it wasn’t for lack of ideas. More than 120 initiatives were filed with the Secretary of State’s office in 2020. In many cases, the same sponsor filed multiple versions of the same initiative and dozens were later withdrawn leaving 46 proposed initiatives in the end. Their topics ranged from property tax relief to gun rights to a mandate that public schools teach art.

Qualifying an initiative to the people is no easy feat and typically requires a small army of paid signature gatherers. That means campaigns have to be well funded. Yet, fundraising totals posted to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission website reveal that no statewide initiative to the people raised substantial sums this year. 

Adding to the challenge this year was the coronavirus pandemic, which presented a unique challenge to in-person signature gathering. Gone were signature-rich large gatherings, like sporting events and festivals, that signature gatherers depend upon to fill their petition sheets.

The situation has prompted some discussion of whether the Secretary of State’s office should allow electronic signatures to qualify. A spokesperson, Kylee Zabel, said Thursday the office had not taken a position on the practice, but continues to advise campaigns to obtain handwritten signatures. As for whether electronically-submitted signatures would be accepted, Zabel said: “We cannot speculate until actual petitions are submitted and reviewed.” 

Historically, the initiative process in Washington has been used by citizens, wealthy individuals and special interests to bring about major changes that the Legislature was either unwilling or not ready to address.

In recent years, Washington voters have approved ballot measures that beefed up gun laws, banned local soda taxes and boosted enforcement of wildlife trafficking.

Initiatives to the people have also brought about sweeping changes, including Washington’s Death with Dignity Act in 2008, privatized liquor sales in 2011 and hikes in the minimum wage in 2016. The state’s 2012 vote to legalize recreational marijuana began as an initiative to the Legislature.

But 2020 seemed to lack any single animating issue or deep-pocketed interest with the ability to fund a successful petition drive -- with one notable exception.

In early June, opponents of mandatory sexual education in schools submitted a record number of signatures to qualify a referendum to the November ballot. Referendum measures are different from statewide initiatives to the people in that they require half the signatures to qualify for the ballot, but those signatures have to be gathered in a much shorter period of time.

Referendum 90 seeks to overturn a bill that passed the Legislature earlier this year that would require every public school in the state to provide comprehensive sexual health education for all grades by the 2022-23 school year. 

“The grassroots and community response to this effort was extraordinary – especially considering the state was essentially closed down at the time,” said Mindie Wirth, the measure’s sponsor, in a press release at the time.

For decades, Washington’s initiative process has been used by professional initiative promoter Tim Eyman to try to foil legislative efforts to raise taxes and to reduce the cost of vehicle registration fees. This year, though, Eyman has other priorities. His successful 2019 initiative to slash car tabs, I-976, is the subject of an ongoing court challenge. Eyman is also running for governor as a Republican.

“Our focus [this year] was just defending the $30 tabs initiative and obviously, for me, running for governor at the same time,” Eyman said.

Eyman is also embroiled in a long-running campaign finance case brought by the attorney general’s office.

For 2021, Eyman has filed two versions of an initiative to the Legislature titled “We Don’t Want An Income Tax.” But the deadline to submit signatures for that effort isn’t until December 31.

Also notably missing from this year’s ballot is the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility which passed statewide gun control measures in 2014, 2016 and 2018

It was thought the group might run an initiative this year to limit gun magazine capacity after the Legislature failed to pass similar legislation earlier this year. However, Kristen Ellingboe, a spokesperson for the Alliance, said Thursday that instead of filing an initiative, her organization decided to try again to pass the bill in the Legislature in 2021. 

“We were very hopeful that we were going to get high capacity magazines across the finish line this session and really think it’s the responsibility of legislators to act, to legislate and we were really clear about that,” said Kristen Ellingboe. “We will be back next year with it.”

Reporting contributed by Dirk VanderHart of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."