Four statewide ballot measures apparently have qualified for November: a clean- energy measure (Initiative 937), repeal of the estate tax (I-920), property rights (I-933), and Tim Eyman’s latest $30-car-tabs gambit (I-917). Voters will hear plenty about these in coming months. Let’s pause to consider two issues, once widely thought to be slam dunks, that didn’t make the November ballot: Eyman’s attempt to repeal the state’s new gay-civil-rights law and an initiative to deny state services to illegal immigrants. Their failures tell us a great deal about how corrupted the initiative process has become in Washington. And it’s premature to celebrate their demise. Both are inevitably going to make a statewide ballot some other year; the only questions are when, under whose sponsorship, and with what provisions. Opponents of gay civil rights and of illegal immigrants are carefully studying the lessons of this year’s failures. Their adversaries would be well advised to do the same.
The first thing that stands out is that to qualify an initiative for statewide ballots, you need money. Lots of it. The four initiatives that qualified this year all used paid signature gatherers; the ones that failed did not. Plenty of people in Washington would be willing to sign petitions opposing either gay rights or illegal immigration, and both measures would be hard to beat on Election Day, but not enough people were passing petitions to get the required signatures.
“Not getting signatures doesn’t mean there isn’t broad-based support for your measure,” Eyman says. “It’s apples and oranges. When you’re dealing with that many signatures in that short a time, it isn’t easy” without paid signature gatherers. “It can be done, but those are few and far between.”
Groups like wistfully named Washington Won’t Discriminate rushed to take credit for stopping Eyman’s proposed referendum. More likely, Eyman didn’t have the money lined up for a successful signature-gathering drive. Conservative Christian leaders are reportedly furious with him for jumping into the issue and then botching it with a poorly organized effort that failed to involve many evangelical factions that oppose gay rights.
An attempt to overturn Washington’s new gay-civil-rights law in 2007 will be that much harder. Because it was a referendum on legislation passed the same year, Eyman needed 4 percent of the votes cast in the last governor’s race, or about 112,000 signatures. He says he fell just short. But in 2007, such a measure would need to be an initiative, which requires 8 percent, twice as many voters, to qualify.
Even so, Eyman “finds it inconceivable” that some form of repeal of the gay-rights bill won’t be back in 2007. Various conservative Christian leaders are already organizing for it. The same is true of the attempt at an anti-immigrant initiative modeled on Arizona’s regressive Proposition 200. Sponsor Bob Baker of Mercer Island only raised a bit over $3,000 for his measure. National and state conservative and Republican groups steered clear.
But George Cheung, campaign coordinator of United for a Healthy Washington, a coalition effort to stop the initiative drive, says of a follow-up effort: “I would bet on it.” Soya Jung Harris, grant and program coordinator for Social Justice Fund Northwest and a longtime local immigrant-rights organizer, concurs. “Immigrants are the enemy of the day,” she says. “We have to expect another attack.”
Initiatives don’t have to pass to succeed. Ask Eyman, who has seen some of his antitax measures embraced by the Legislature after courts threw out the initiative versions. In Colorado, a recent special legislative session called by Democrats successfully managed to co-opt a pending, draconian anti-immigrant initiative—by enacting 11 “compromise” bills that, cumulatively, were far worse than the initiative they replaced.
With Congress unlikely to agree on immigration reform this year, national activists are gearing up to build momentum through state-by-state successes—just like they did with antigay measures in 2004. Washington, with a large farmworker population and a long Canadian border, is an obvious target.
It’s no time for complacency. Cheung’s United for a Healthy Washington is continuing community organizing for whatever comes next. Washington Won’t Discriminate, the coalition formed to protect the gay- civil-rights bill, is also still in business, bracing for the next round.
Too often, reactionary initiatives succeed in part because opposition to them doesn’t become organized until it’s too late to win. There’s a very real danger of that happening with each of the conservative initiatives on this year’s ballot. Will advance warning of a year or two make a difference? We may soon find out.