History of Initiative & Referendum in Washington

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The history of the initiative and referendum process in Washington began in 1897, though indirect initiatives were not ratified into the state constitution until 1912.

Earliest Advocates

In 1897 State Representative L. E. Reeder of Ollalla introduced a constitutional amendment for initiative and referendum that passed the lower house by a 63 to 12 vote, but it failed in the state senate. Influential in that partial victory was House Speaker Charles E. Cline of Olympia, who became secretary of the state's Direct Legislation League.

Another state legislator, George F. Cotterill of Seattle, had become president of the League by 1900. By this time, however, Cline was no longer House Speaker, and the I&R movement stagnated.

I&R Becomes Law

After the initial failed attempts at passing I&R law in the state of Washington groups formed around the issue to push it through. In 1907 the state's organized labor and farm groups cooperated with the Direct Legislation League in deluging the legislature with petitions calling for statewide I&R. Soon after, the I&R bill introduced by State Rep. Glenn N. Ranck of Vancouver passed the lower house 66 to 26, but the state senate defeated it 25 to 15. An I&R supporter noted that “just two forces" opposed I&R: "special privileged corporation interests and the organized liquor traffic," the latter because it feared voters would enact a Prohibition initiative.

I&R was going to be passed into law, but there was opposition within the state as to how much power should be given to the voters through I&R. The state Federation of Labor, whose president was Charles Case, and the state Grange, whose "master" (i.e., president) was C. B. Kegley, formed a Joint Legislative Committee that finally got the I&R amendment through both houses of the legislature in 1911. However, the version passed by the legislature did not allow voters to initiate state constitutional amendments, because certain state senators, with the active support of Governor Hay, insisted that an amendment receive at least 60 percent of all votes cast in a general election in order to pass. The pro-I&R committee refused to accept this compromise, and over 70 years later, there is still no provision for initiatives to amend the state constitution in Washington. Voters ratified the legislature’s I&R bill by a five to two margin in 1912, and in the same election, George Cotterill was elected mayor of Seattle.

Early successful initiatives

The farmer-labor Joint Legislative Committee put the voters' newly established lawmaking powers to use immediately. They circulated petitions to put seven initiatives on the 1914 ballot, of which five qualified, though only one was approved by voters: a measure to abolish private employment agencies. The intent behind this law was to stop the well-documented exploitation of unemployed workers, particularly lumberjacks, by such agencies.

A statewide Prohibition initiative also passed in 1914, just as the liquor interests had feared.

Fighting to keep rights to initiative & referendum

As a result of the Prohibition initiative the following year anti-initiative forces in the legislature - which was "dominated by the whiskey, lumber, and fish interests," according to Grange Master Kegley - struck back by passing a bill (deceptively titled "An Act to Facilitate the Operation of the Initiative and Referendum") that would have made it virtually impossible to get an initiative on the ballot.

Progressive forces used the power of referendum to stop the bill from going into effect. They quickly circulated petitions to block it until voters could reject it in the November 1916 election (which they did, by a three to one margin).

Obstructing referendum rights

The legislature soon found a way to obstruct the referendum provision: by attaching an "emergency clause" to a bill, they could cause it to take effect immediately and thus make it invulnerable to referendum petitions. Eventually, in 1929, the state supreme court ruled that the legislature could not add an “emergency clause" to a bill in the absence of a real emergency (State ex. rel. Satterthwaite v. Hinkle, 152 Wash. 221 [1929]).

Other early initiatives

Property tax limitation initiatives were on the ballot five times between 1924 and 1938. The proposals, which sought to limit the tax levy on real and personal property to 40 mills, were passed by voters in 1932, 1934, 1936, and 1938, before the legislature acted to make the tax limit permanent by putting it into the state constitution, a move that was approved by voters in 1940.

Washington voters twice approved redistricting initiatives, once in 1930 and again in 1956. The latter initiative was sponsored by the state League of Women Voters. Another successful election reform passed by voter initiative was permanent voter registration, enacted in 1932.

In the years of the Great Depression, economic concerns frequently became the subject of Washington state initiatives. Voters passed an initiative authorizing creation of public utility districts in 1930, a measure that helped make possible the state's current system of locally controlled, publicly owned electric utilities.

Production for use proposal

Perhaps the most innovative initiative of the 1930s was the 1936 "Production for Use" proposal. "Production for Use" was conceived by Upton Sinclair, the Socialist author of The Jungle, who became a Democrat in 1934 in order to run for California's governorship. This economic recovery plan called for the government to acquire idle production facilities such as factories, hire the unemployed to work in them, and promote sales of the goods through cooperatives. After Sinclair lost in California, his Washington admirers decided to give the concept a second chance by putting it on the ballot there in 1936. The Washington Commonwealth Federation, which sponsored the initiative, was split by internal dissension that year, and little was accomplished to promote the measure's passage. It lost by a nearly four to one margin.

1948 to present initiatives

Washington voters turned generous in 1948, when they approved initiatives granting a bonus to veterans and increasing Social Security benefits. In 1954 they rejected by a three to one margin an initiative to restrict advertising for alcoholic beverages on television: a unique proposal that, like "Production for Use" in 1936, never appeared on any other ballot in the nation.

One of the most important postwar reforms accomplished by voter initiative was the establishment of the state's civil service system, which was approved by the electorate in 1958 for county sheriff employees and in 1960 for state employees. Prior to this, the "patronage" or "spoils system" had filled bureaucracies with incompetent party hacks.

In 1968, the Washington State Medical Association sponsored an initiative requiring drivers stopped by police for driving under the influence of liquor to submit to breath tests. Voters approved it by a two to one margin. That same year they approved a measure putting a lid on interest rates paid by retail credit customers.

In 1970, environmentalists launched a petition drive for an initiative to restrict shoreline development, more than a year before California ecology groups launched their drive for a similar initiative. The Washington state petition qualified for the ballot and prompted the legislature to propose an alternative bill, which was on the 1972 ballot along with the initiative measure. The legislature's bill received more votes, and therefore it took effect instead of the initiative. In 1988, however, when the choice was between an environmentalist-backed toxic waste tax and cleanup initiative and the legislature's version, voters chose the initiative.

Present activists

In 2000 along came a new initiative advocate, Tim Eyman. Like Bill Sizemore in Oregon and Doug Bruce in Colorado, his passion was tax reduction. He placed several initiatives on the ballot in 2000 and 2001 that passed overwhelmingly. However, the state supreme court struck them down as violating the state’s stringent single subject rule for initiatives.

External links


This article is significantly based on an article[1] published by the Initiative & Referendum Institute, and is used with their permission. Their article, in turn, relies on research in David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution.[2]


  1. History of Washinton's initiative
  2. Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution Temple University Press, 352 pp., ISBN-10: 0877229031, October 1991