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Sunday, November 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

Taking the initiative

Special to The Times

Talk to a political insider about ballot initiatives and you're likely to get a stream of complaints. Skeptical legislators, administrators and political observers worry that people don't understand the issues they're voting on. These critics also maintain that the to-and-fro of legislating-by-initiative makes it very difficult for lawmakers to manage the state budget properly.

Talk to the average Washingtonian and one hears a different tune. Just days before this month's election, The Washington Poll surveyed likely voters and found that 67 percent viewed the initiative process favorably. In fact, a plurality (46 percent) of voters thought the voting public was just as competent at policymaking as are elected representatives, with only 17 percent giving the nod to electeds and 29 percent actually trusting the voters more than the officials those voters elect.

So who's right? Are voters woefully under-informed, or do they have a firm grasp of the relevant facts when they make law through the initiative process?

The most detailed answer comes from a series of questions we asked voters in The Washington Poll, a nonpartisan research survey sponsored by the University of Washington. The results reveal a clear pattern across each of this year's statewide initiatives. Not only do many of us misunderstand initiatives and the issues surrounding them, but we also tend to line up our beliefs about matters of fact with the positions we take on each initiative.

What Voters Knew (Or Thought They Knew)

Consider the case of I-920, which proposed repealing our state's estate tax. Many voters did not understand who pays this tax and on what assets. Only one in four voters knew that the estate tax applies to small family businesses but not to family farms or ranches.

Moreover, our misunderstandings about the estate tax aligned with our voting intentions on I-920. A majority of those who supported the initiative mistakenly believed that family farms were subject to the estate tax, whereas most opponents knew this was not the case. On the other hand, a third of I-920 opponents labored under the misapprehension that small family businesses are not taxed in this way, an error shared by only 19 percent of the initiative's supporters.

Bits of knowledge such as these are not trivial. Consider the interplay of partisanship and knowledge. Those voters who were quick to identify themselves as Republicans overwhelmingly supported I-920, but only a narrow majority of GOP voters (53 percent) supported I-920 if they knew farms and ranches were exempt. Only a third of independent voters who knew this fact backed the initiative, compared with 47 percent support by those moderates who mistakenly believed farms and ranches were subject to the tax. Even Democrats, who opposed the initiative across the board, wavered a bit if they believed family farms could be taxed — with their opposition dropping from 81 percent to a still-solid 74 percent.

The Washington Poll results were similar for the other two statewide initiatives. Those who backed the I-933 property-rights measure were less likely to recognize that the initiative would not limit eminent domain authority, but they were also less likely to overestimate the Office of Financial Management's prediction of the initiative's net cost to the state.

Initiative 937 demonstrated that a measure backed by the state's more liberal voters suffered from the same pattern of errors. Remarkably, a plurality (46 percent) of those supporting this initiative believed that I-937's renewable-energy goals encompassed hydroelectric power, the generation of which already greatly exceeds the initiative's targets. By contrast, a majority of opponents (58 percent) knew this to be false. On the other hand, a majority of proponents (51 percent) knew that 20 or more states have already established energy-generation standards comparable to those established by I-937, with only 19 percent of supporters doubting this claim. Opponents were evenly divided between knowing this fact, mistakenly believing this to be false, or being altogether unsure on this point.

Relying on Endorsements

Some readers might stop at this point and say that these kinds of factual errors are trivial, since voters can simply use key endorsements to decide how to vote. After all, one might presume that Republicans easily find out what the GOP recommends, and Democrats consult their own party.

Including "leaners," who begrudgingly admit to favoring one major party over the other, 93 percent of Washington voters identify themselves with a single party. Unfortunately, a majority of both Republican and Democratic voters do not know the position of their own party on any given initiative.

What this translates to is a muddled endorsement-cueing process. On I-933, for example, 73 percent of those Republican voters who knew the Washington state GOP backed the measure took that same position themselves. Only 63 percent of Republicans unsure of their party's stance supported I-933, and only 45 percent of those who believed the party opposed the measure instead supported it.

For Democrats, the results were comparable: 89 percent of those who knew their party opposed I-933 agreed with that stance, whereas opposition dropped to 68 percent among those unsure of their party's position and down to 44 percent for those who had their party's position backwards.

Both independents and partisans might also look beyond the two major parties when seeking voting cues. Unfortunately, even fewer voters knew the positions of major organizations that took strong positions on the initiatives. For example, on I-937, only 29 percent of voters knew that the Washington Farm Bureau opposed the measure; 24 percent thought the bureau supported it; and the remaining 47 percent were unsure or thought it took no position. The Washington Public Utility Districts Association fared even worse, with only 22 percent of voters knowing it backed I-937 and more than twice as many (46 percent) believing the opposite to be true.

Increasing Voter Knowledge

The results of our research may embolden those, like national columnist David Broder, who advocate eliminating the initiative process altogether. We think that stance is misguided. After all, the overwhelming majority of the Washington public treasures the initiative as a means of speaking directly on a range of policy issues, particularly when it feels its voice goes unheard in Olympia. For this simple reason, proposals to roll back the initiative are dead on arrival, whether introduced in the Legislature or in a statewide election.

Rather than attempt to curtail the initiative, we should aim to improve the initiative process. One means of doing so is to increase the amount of helpful information in the Voters Pamphlet that arrives in every registered voter's mailbox. Nearly all (95 percent) of the likely voters surveyed in The Washington Poll reported referring to the pamphlet before making their initiative voting choices.

According to survey respondents, the section of the pamphlet that voters find most useful is the set of pro and con statements. These arguments and rebuttals are useful because they present clashing views; but what if a page were added that provided more reflective and balanced information?

One proposal being considered for state law would establish independent panels of Washington citizens to provide voters with more-reliable information about initiatives. Each panel would consist of a cross-section of Washingtonians who would spend a full week hearing testimony and deliberating on the merits of each initiative. The citizens' final report would appear in the Voters Pamphlet, and their panel proceedings would be made available online.

That very proposal — in almost identical wording — was put to the voters in The Washington Poll, and it received emphatic support. Sixty-nine percent of respondents supported the "Citizen Initiative Review" proposal. Support was at 67 percent or higher for every major subgroup of Washington voters — Republicans, Democrats and independents; women and men; and both those voters who pay careful attention to politics and those who admit to being less-involved.

Washington voters welcome the idea of creating a source of information on initiatives that would come from people like thems. People trust that a representative body of their peers could identify and grasp the relevant issues in any given initiative and relay back to the larger voting public information and insight that help voters sort out the issues for themselves. Even on those issues where voters have different values and viewpoints, such citizen deliberation might help the larger public arrive at a shared understanding of the initiatives on the ballot.

Recalling the earlier finding that most voters consider themselves at least as competent as elected officials, this does not mean that voters imagine themselves to be infallible. Instead, voters recognize that the public would benefit from its own systematic analysis of proposed laws, just as elected officials depend on their own procedures for legislative deliberation.

John Gastil, left, is associate professor of communication at the University of Washington and co-editor of The Deliberative Democracy Handbook. E-mail: jgastil@u.washington.edu

Ned Crosby, benncro@usinternet.com, is a Port Townsend resident and the creator of the citizen jury deliberation process, which has been adopted in many countries around the world. Both serve on a committee advocating the Citizens Initiative Review in Washington.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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