Welcome to Washington, the nation's democracy lab

Commentary: From GMOs to petition peddlers' rights, the 2013 initiative crop confirms Washington's status as a seedbed of populist innovation - and some policy junk science.
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Washington, the laboratory state

Commentary: From GMOs to petition peddlers' rights, the 2013 initiative crop confirms Washington's status as a seedbed of populist innovation - and some policy junk science.

“Laboratories of democracy” is what Justice Louis Brandeis called the states, and lately Washington has seemed like CERN and JPL rolled into one.

Not since the mid-1930s, when the progressive Washington Commonwealth Federation dominated the Democratic Party and legislature and pioneered New Deal-style legislation, has this state been such a fertile policy testbed. No other state has been so eager to go where Congress and the president don’t want or don’t dare to go. Last year, the citizens of one other state voted to recognize same-sex marriage, and another’s voted to legalize recreational marijuana. Only Washington’s did both.

Now Washingtonians are considering whether to extend that run by taking the lead on two more national hot-button issues: dramatically raising the minimum wage, and labeling genetically-modified foods. We’ll also decide whether to fortify the process that produces such initiatives by giving petition campaigns 60 percent more time to qualify for the ballot, and by making signature gatherers a specially protected class.

At the same time, Seattleites will decide on fundamental changes in the way they elect their city council, on public campaign financing and on switching from all at-large to mostly district council seats. These measures are certainly important locally; they’re also bellwethers of public sentiment, of how alienated Seattleites feel from a city hall that appears focused on Amazon’s neighborhood to the exclusion than their own. And this time, in contrast to past pushes for district elections, the impetus isn’t just coming from West Seattle.

However Seattleites vote on these measures, they won’t stir a ripple in other cities, where ward systems and public financing are familiar options. But passing Initiative 522, which would make food manufacturers disclose whether products contain ingredients from genetically modified organisms, would be (take your pick) even bolder, more independent-minded or more cussedly stubborn than legalizing weed and gay marriage.

By voting yes on 522, voters would defy the mighty commercial interests — Big Ag, Big Chem and Big Food Processing — which are dumping $22 million and counting into the mailstream and airwaves in an effort to scare them off. And they would boldly go where California voters, in the face of another barrage of anti-labeling spending, feared to go. All over a rather modest labeling requirement. If GMO labeling passes in Washington, look for similar measures on ballots around the country. No wonder the Bigs are spending so much to try to kill the experiment here.

An even bigger innovation (potentially) is struggling to be born in little Seatac, Washington. If voters there grant airport-area service and concession workers a $15-an-hour minimum wage, plus paid sick leave and short-term job protections, it could prove another pebble sending ripples far and wide. The labor and living-wage activists behind it cannily picked a business venue, the airport, with a more or less captive, price-insensitive market. (We expect to pay more there then in, say, restaurants elsewhere, just as we expect to get nickel-and-dimed with extra airline costs.)

But if Seatac’s Proposition 1 passes, the contention by opponents that it’s unfair to make airport businesses pay costs others don’t pay will get turned around: Why shouldn’t businesses elsewhere pay the same wages as their airport brethren? City councils and airport administrations elsewhere have mandated special minimums for certain classes of workers; if voters do it here, as they did in Long Beach, they’ll set a more resonant example. That will give cover to officials like Seattle’s mayor and city council, who keep talking about a $15 minimum for this much whole city.

Then, sure as rain and traffic jams, there’s Tim Eyman, back with another ballot stinkbomb, this time dubbed the “Protect the Initiative Act.” This time, instead of restricting official taxing authority along the usual model, Initiative 517 would mandate special governmental protection for the initiative industrial complex.

To quote its voter’s pamphlet statement, this measure would stop the pervasive “bullying” of “citizens exercising their free speech rights” — i.e., paid signature gatherers funded by the likes of big banks and oil companies — inflicted by “entrenched politicians and special interests.” If you’ve spent any time on commercial-district sidewalks in the past two decades, you’ve probably seen a lot more bullying and badgering by petition peddlers than by “entrenched politicians.” Nevertheless, I-517 would make it a crime (disorderly conduct) to maintain “an intimidating presence within 25 feet of any person gathering signatures,” among other forms of “interference.”

What constitutes an “intimidating presence”? Glowering? Some folks find tall people like me intimidating by default. The cops and courts will have fun with this one.

Signature gatherers, by contrast, would not have to keep any such distance from the doors of stores; they would be explicitly permitted to harass — er, solicit — in front of them, as well as inside stadiums and “other public buildings,” including libraries, schools, courthouses, government offices and public hospitals. In order to counter the “despicable tactics” (that’s from the I-517 text) of initiative blockers and correct the grievous shortage of ballot measures, petition purveyors would get 16 rather than 10 months to gather signatures. And officials would be required to submit every measure with enough signatures to public vote, even if the courts declare it unconstitutional or legislators opt to adopt it on their own.

What would Louis Brandeis say to the Protect the Initiative Act? Wouldn’t it make this state an even more fertile laboratory of democracy, nurturing even more and bolder experiments?

Only if you think junk science, unmoored from anything like the peer-review process, advances scientific knowledge — as opposed to discrediting all science in the public view. The measures Eyman and company have championed, and want to make even easier to get on the ballot, are with a few exceptions not so much innovations as clever sequels to California’s 1978 Proposition 13, which launched the “taxpayer revolt” that’s ebbed and flowed ever since. Brakes on public spending certainly have their place. But exalting the free speech of one class (signature gatherers) at the expense of others’ probably wasn’t what Justice Brandeis had in mind.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.