Initiative campaigns: where's the truth?

An encounter with one signature gatherer revolves around a clearly untrue assertion. That's only part of the problem for voters in trying to know what a ballot measure means.
Crosscut archive image.

Signature gatherers for an initiative at work in Seattle's Westlake Park.

An encounter with one signature gatherer revolves around a clearly untrue assertion. That's only part of the problem for voters in trying to know what a ballot measure means.

The push is on to qualify voter initiatives for the fall ballot in Washington state. Signature gatherers are in high gear. Straight through to ballot casting time, it's often challenging for voters to really make sense of the complex initiative and referenda topics, and truth in advertising matters right from the get-go.

That's why I was concerned about something I witnessed Tuesday (June 22). A signature gatherer for the high-earner state income tax measure, I-1098, was working in front of the Target at Westwood Village shopping center in West Seattle. As I approached, shopping list in hand, he urged me to sign the petition because, he said — clearly, forthrightly and foremost — it would raise money to re-open Seattle public schools that had been closed. I examined the summary language of the initiative on the petition and could find no such indication at all. I decided to investigate further whether there might be even a glimmer of truth to what he said.

It's not that playing games with the truth on the part of signature gatherers is anything new. In fact, that's a much larger problem, and one that properly concerns many citizens here and in other states. In this state, signature gatherers and even petition campaign leaders have been caught using false, exaggerated, or dubious claims all the way from at least a 2003 business-supported measure aimed at overturning rules on ergonomics to last year's state referendum aimed at the domestic partnership law. In Oregon, indeed, the state is trying something that may help address the even larger issue of how to fairly evaluate entire ballot measures that do receive enough signatures to go before voters.

In talking about school closures, the signature gatherer in West Seattle seized on something that is a real hot-button issue in Seattle for many parents, particularly in minority communities. They have packed school board meetings and protested vociferously. Due to under-enrollment at some schools, and resulting inefficiencies, the Seattle Public Schools board has closed 12 schools since 2006. Seven were closed in that year; last year, five more were approved for shuttering.

But the matter-of-fact claim made to me by the signature gatherer at Westwood Village, that I-1098 would pay for re-opening closed Seattle public schools, is contradicted by the Yes on 1098 campaign's own materials and Seattle Public Schools.

The initiative does promise that if passed it would raise money for public education, specifically to reduce class size. This I-1098 backgrounder, from the Yes campaign's web site, states:

With very wealthy Washington State residents finally paying their fair share in taxes, this initiative will raise about $1 billion annually, even after the small business and middle-class tax cuts. The funding will not go to the state general fund, but will be required by law to be dedicated to the Education Legacy Trust Fund for K-12 class size reductions, extended learning opportunities, pre-kindergarten, and expanding access to higher education, as well as to fund the voter-approved Basic Health Plan, public health services, and long-term care for vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities.

An information sheet (a pdf file) from the campaign reiterates the public education emphasis on reducing class sizes, not re-opening closed schools. A Seattle Public Schools spokesperson confirmed that, “no schools will be reopened if Initiative 1098 is passed, so those claims made by the signature gatherer are untrue.”

More than that, school officials have stressed the closure decisions came because keeping some schools open just wasn't good education policy — wherever the money comes from. In a Crosscut piece penned around the time the second batch of the most recent closures came, Seattle School Board President Michael DeBell wrote:

Full buildings generally offer more than half empty ones — more variety of enrichment, more after-school programs, more opportunity to match student needs to teacher strengths, more community involvement, and more vigorous professional learning communities for teachers to develop their craft. There is a strong correlation between proper utilization of building capacity and academic performance in Seattle Schools. This is to be expected in a choice system, where parents seek out what are perceived as quality options. Maintaining excess capacity above functional needs and potential for future growth (probably a range of 10-15 percent) is an added expense that steals resources from quality instruction.

It's not only the fictional arguments for or against ballot measures that need closer scrutiny, but the real ones, as well. Without taking any position on I-1098, I'd suggest that the measure's promise to reduce public school class sizes should be carefully weighed. Would that be a smart way to spend some of the proceeds of the proposed top-earner income tax to benefit students? Many would scoff that of course, that's beyond question. However DeBell, who's far from alone in this position, wrote:

My understanding of research shows that instructional quality, consistency, rigor, and depth are more important than class size (except for K-2), school building size, or program in producing academic success, especially for poor children.

Yet as many voters have rightly lamented, who possibly has the time to do due diligence on all the ballot initiatives, their merits, promises and claims? Yes, there's the Voter's Pamphlet, in which pro and con arguments are offered, but these come from all the usual suspects. Forums and other analyses of ballot measures by various groups get lost in the clutter of entrenched and noisy advocacy.

The path forward, long advocated but never enacted in Washington, is officially-sanctioned creation of neutral, objective, expert citizen panels to evaluate ballot measures and issue findings broadly for voters to consider. Oregon has begun a pilot program to do exactly that. Earlier this year, DeAnna Martin of The Center For Wise Democracy detailed that effort in an essay. She wrote:
This fall the State of Oregon will try out an official Citizen Initiative Review of a ballot measure. In a Citizen Initiative Review, a randomly selected and demographically balanced panel of Oregon voters participate in a weeklong deliberation on a ballot measure, the results of which are published in the voter'ꀙs pamphlet to better inform voters of unbiased implications of the measure when they go to vote. ...
This will be the first time in U.S. history that citizen deliberation utilizing a randomly selected cross section of voters has been directly tied to an election. Oregon'ꀙs pilot legislation has created a "civic experiment" where deliberation is legislatively empowered. The field of democratic dialogue and deliberation will learn a great deal about how such a model can link up directly to decision-making. In the hope of Healthy Democracy Oregon's director, "It can also become a symbol or exemplar of democratic innovation to others working to improve democracy."

In West Seattle, I had replied to the signature gatherer that to my understanding, Seattle Public School closures were due to under-enrollment and operational inefficiencies, not essentially a lack of funds, and added I doubted very much his claim I-1098 would re-open closed schools. He had a surprised reaction. This isn't the first time, nor will it be the last, that a signature gatherer stretches the truth. "Say anything, just get the signatures" is the real operating principle once the shoe leather hits the pavement.

It's not really possible to regulate what petitioners say; in fact, the Washington Secretary of State's guide (pdf) to ballot initiatives is silent on the matter of truthfulness.

The ballot initiative petition signature gathering phase and its quick and dirty idea hawking typically foreshadows heavily bankrolled media campaigns and professionally orchestrated "grassroots" advocacy for ballot measures, based on poll-tested selling points devised by special interests.

That's protected free speech, for better and worse. But nothing so far — not any of the usual voter's guide treatises or public forums with their paint-by-numbers talking points — has provided any widely effective relief for the "voter fatigue" resulting from the barrage of conflicting, contentious claims by pro and con initiative campaigns in Washington state.

Many people, in fact, are rather sick of the whole process. It's time to find a better way to improve the signal-to-noise ratio during ballot initiative season.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors