William U'Ren, the true king of the voter initiative. Krist Novoselic's column runs every Tuesday on the Daily Weekly. Read about what's spinning on his


Tim Eyman, Special Interests, and the True King of Voter Initiatives

William U'Ren, the true king of the voter initiative. Krist Novoselic's column runs every Tuesday on the Daily Weekly. Read about what's spinning on his turntable, every Friday on Reverb.
These are the final days of the 2009 election, and as usual it's Tim Eyman, the Initiative King, fighting the government. Eyman knows the source of his power is in voters' desire for securing control over government. And this process does just that; however, it also gives power to special interests who can afford to buy enough signatures to get a measure on the ballot.

During the progressive era, the initiative process was another vehicle for change for a population who felt increasingly disconnected from a government they felt was a tool for special interests. Sound familiar? In fact, in a 1910 letter to the Washington Grange, Washington Governor M.E. Hay comments on the sentiments of his day, which could just as accurately describe our current political climate: "There is a great unrest or feeling among the people that our form of government can be materially changed for the benefit of all. At no time in the history of our country, during periods of profound peace and wonderful prosperity, has there been such a feeling of unrest as there is today."

Grange Master Kegley responded by telling the governor that the people wanted the elimination of the "party boss" and "legislation for special-privilege interests" and how people need "to secure full control over all their public servants." He was basically following in the footsteps of William U'Ren, and called for the initiative, referendum, and recall. (Source: The Washington State Grange: A Romance of Democracy 1889-1924, by Harriet Ann Crawford.)

The true voter-initiative king would be U'Ren, the man who started it all.

U'Ren was a progressive-era Oregonian who championed the initiative & referendum process 100 years ago. As Washingtonians receive their ballots, we'll see the legacy of U'Ren's vision--with these ballot measures, voters become lawmakers. And that's the intent--to keep lawmakers in check.

U'Ren was wildly a populist. He recognized the unrest, and set out to change the rules of government. He was the original power-to-the-people promoter. And the initiative does that indeed. However, it has also created a parallel government: Today any person or a group with a few hundred thousand dollars can pay for enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Opponents of I-1033 can give rational explanations of the impact this proposal will have on public services, but I don't think many voters are really listening. They're simply reacting to the fact that they feel disconnected from their legislature. Master Kegley's comments from 100 years ago about voters wanting to secure full control over their government mirror today's sentiments. Don't get me wrong, people's control over government is what democracy is all about. But as I've said, achieving it through the initiative process produces some unintended consequences.

We cannot slam lawmakers with such disregard. It takes coordination to run a modern state. And when I say "state," I mean roads and transportation, managing public resources, helping the vulnerable, providing education opportunities--the list goes on. And it seems as if people love these things. That is, of course, until they're asked to pay for them.

Yes, indeed, I'm showing sympathy to our elected leaders. I'll admit it sometimes can be fun to see them squirm, but in all honesty Olympia passed a budget this year in which they cut $9 billion--without raising taxes. Instead of plaudits, the thanks they get is I-1033! (We'll see how it goes in a few weeks.)

Regular readers of my column know I often beat the drum of election reform. This time I'll give U'Ren the mallet. In 1908 he led the successful effort to amend the Oregon state constitution to accommodate proportional voting that would provide voters with first, second and third choices on the ballot. He said, "Real representative government is impossible unless all political parties, minorities as well as majorities, are thus fairly represented in the legislature in proportion to the number of supporters that each has among the voters." (Giving Voters a Voice: The Origins of the Initiative and Referendum in America by Steven L. Piott.)

It's a simple proposition--do you want people to feel as though they have a stake in their government? If so, change election rules along the lines proposed by U'Ren! But that's unlikely, because lawmakers are loath to change rules that benefit their re-election. So there's likely no end in sight to the battle between Olympia and today's Initiative King.

Look at your ballot: U'Ren's vision impacts people in the Pacific Northwest to this day. But look at the rules while bearing in mind U'Ren's other idea about reforming representative government, and perhaps you'll see a future ballot--one that makes most people feel better connected to their lawmakers.

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