What if two wildly different gun initiatives both win voter approval?

A new poll shows majority support for both dueling gun measures that will be on the November ballot.
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A new poll shows majority support for both dueling gun measures that will be on the November ballot.

A majority of voters support two conflicting ballot initiatives related to gun sale background checks, according to a poll released on Tuesday.

The Elway Poll found that 55 percent of respondents were inclined to vote for I-591, the “Protect Our Gun Rights Act,” which would make it unlawful for the state to conduct gun sale background checks not required by the federal government. Meanwhile, 72 percent of respondents favored I-594, which would require background checks for all firearm sales and transfers, including gun show and online purchases. The poll also found that 40 percent of those interviewed were inclined to vote for both measures.

The initiatives are slated for November’s ballot and the passage of both could set up a messy legal situation. Although conflicting measures have appeared on past ballots, voters have never approved two of them simultaneously. If that were to happen, Washington’s constitution does not specify how the conflict should be resolved.

“There isn’t an explicit answer,” said Jeffrey Even, deputy solicitor general for the state Attorney General’s Office. “We haven’t actually faced it.”

Other states, including California, have rules that say if two opposing initiatives pass, the one that receives the most votes goes into effect.

“Our court has never said anything like that,” Even said.

It is possible, he said, that the state Legislature could pass a bill that resolves the differences between the two initiatives. But if the Legislature did not act, then any disagreements would probably have to be solved in court.

In 1993, the Attorney General’s Office authored an opinion that addressed what might happen if voters passed two opposing ballot measures in an election that year. The opinion was in response to I-601 and I-602, a pair of anti-tax measures. Both would have restricted taxes; I-602 would have done so more aggressively.

In the opinion, the Attorney General’s Office said that if voters approved both measures, and the legislature did not reconcile them, then the courts would have to “develop a new rule to choose between conflicting provisions of the two initiatives.”

The opinion was never tested because voters only approved I-601 (it was later overturned by the courts on unrelated grounds). 

There are some areas where this year’s gun-related ballot measures do not overlap. I-591, for instance, has a provision that says it is unlawful for government agencies to confiscate firearms without due legal process. I-594, in contrast, does not address that topic. 

This could leave the door open for parts of both initiatives to stand if they pass at the same time.

“There’s at least room for argument,” Even said. “People might get creative.”

The Elway Poll also asked respondents a more basic question, in an attempt to cut through any confusion caused by the initiative titles: whether they favored more extensive background checks compared to Washington's current system. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they did, and 32 percent said they would keep the current system.

About a year ago, in March 2013, Elway found that 79 percent of voters favored background checks for all gun sales. That means the 62-percent now in favor of more extensive checks could be interpreted a decline in support. But Elway also pointed to the 72 percent of poll respondents that currently back the more restrictive initiative, I-594. “The underlying attitude about gun rights may have shifted somewhat in the past year,” the poll's findings said, “but not in a consistent direction.”

The poll also found stark fractures along party lines. Eighty-three percent of Democrats want to expand background checks, compared to 46 percent of Republicans. And 74 percent of Republicans said that protecting gun rights was more important than controlling gun ownership, while only 24 percent of surveyed Democrats felt the same way.

A campaign spokesperson for the I-591 campaign was not available for comment on Tuesday. The I-594 campaign did not return a phone call or an email asking for comment.

The poll surveyed 504 people, selected at random from a list of registered Washington voters. Interviews were conducted April 9-13. The margin of sampling error for the poll was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.


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