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[From the Western Political Quarterly, June 1975]


University of Washington

N 1973 Washington completed sixty years of experience with the statutory initiative and referendum. Along with Ohio and Utah, it is one of only


three states using both direct initiative to the people and indirect initiative to the legislature. Two generations of use afford an opportunity, using voting results, to review some aspects of the theory and practice of popular lawmaking in the state.'

A comprehensive, systematic study of voter attitudes and behavior on propositions combining both macro and micro analysis in a state is wanting. Most of the studies using statewide data were published some time ago and are limited to periods up to a quarter of a century. On the other hand, much of the micro level literature focuses only on such topics as fluoridation, bonds, and open housing.'

Our major focus is on statewide data. The purpose of this paper is to derive several hypotheses and related generalizations from the theory of direct legislation, and to test their application in the state of Washington. First, the theoretical basis of the initiative and referendum process will be examined. Second, the question of who sets the agenda will be considered, along with the type of electoral mechanism chosen, and the degree of success encountered at the polls with each. Third, the extent of use of each type of device will be exam

'Although primary concern in this article is with initiated and referred statutes, constitutional amendments are included at times to provide a more complete picture of voting behavior. From the voters point of view an amendment is, of course, a referred measure.

'See for example the monographs by Joseph G. La Palombara, The Initiative and Referendum in Oregon: 1935-1948 (Corvallis: Oregon State College Press, 1950); Winston W. Crouch, The Initiative and Referendum in California (Los Angeles: The Haynes Foundation, 1950); and James K. Pollack, The Initiative and Referendum in Michigan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1940). See also the article by Edwin A. Cottrell, "Twenty-five Years of Direct Legislation in California," Public Opinion Quarterly, 3 (January 1939), 30-45. No extensive, systematic treatment of the subject in Washington State has appeared since that by Claudius O. Johnson, "The Initiative and Referendum in Washington," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 36 (January 1945), 29-63. Hugh A. Bone, The Initiative in Washington: 1914-1974 (Washington Public Policy Notes, Institute of Governmental Research, University of Washington, Seattle, 1974). The elections sections of the Western Political Quarterly from 1948 through 1970 are valuable sources of data for uses and outcomes of ballot propositions in Western states in respective elections.

'See, for example, on fluoridation Thomas A. F. Plaut, "Analysis of Voting Behavior in a Fluoridation Referendum," Public Opinion Quarterly, 23 (Summer 1959), 213-22; Raymond E. Wohlfinger and Fred I. Greenstein, "The Repeal of Fair Housing in California: An Analysis of Referendum Voting," American Political Science Review, 62 (September 1968), 753-69; T. W. Casstevens, California's Rumsford Act and Proposition 14 and Defeat of Berkeley's Fair Housing Ordinance, pamphlets published by the Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California; Howard D. Hamilton, "Direct Legislation: Some Implications of Open Housing Referenda," American Political Science Review, 64 (March 1970), 124-37; Bruce Shepard, "Political Preferences, Participation and Local Policy Making: A Study of Referendum Voting Behavior in American Cities" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Riverside, 1972).

ined. Fourth, aggregate voting results will be used to examine several hypotheses concerning turnout for ballot propositions. An analysis over time will be adopted, since one or two successive elections may skew the results. Finally, the authors advance some ideas for future comparative research.

THE THEORY OF Direct Legislation and Its MechANISMS

Although the main outlines of direct legislation theory have received widespread attention from time to time, a brief reiteration of its major premises and assumptions can provide a link between theory and the hypotheses to be developed in the following sections.

As an integral part of the populist platform, an emphasis upon "the people” and their role in decision-making has prevailed among direct legislation theorists. As Congressman John E. Raker stated in the Congressional Record sixty-three years ago:

The Initiative, Referendum, and Recall are closely connected parts of the same political theory. The people elect representatives; if these representatives don't carry out the will of the people, then the people initiate legislation. If their representatives transgress the will of the people, then the people, through the referendum, repeal the laws which their representatives have made. . . . If [they] do violence to the will of the people as expressed in their laws, then the people reserve the right to recall the interpreters as well as the makers or executives of law.... This political theory constitutes democracy in action."

Thus as an alternative to legislative unresponsiveness, the initiative and referendum were to give the citizen the means to protest specific policy grievances, and to implement on a collective basis those programs deemed desirable by the majority.

As to the emphasis upon the "people" and more egalitarian policy-making, disagreements within the ranks of proponents were evident. One line of thought was not so much that special interest decision-making would be completely eliminated, but that less special group manipulation would occur than if all decisions were left in the hands of the legislature. However, a totally opposite interpretation was that direct legislation mechanisms could be used by certain groups which appeared to be left out of policies, programs, and benefits distributed by the legislature. The disadvantaged group in effect could seek to supplement what the legislature had done this would be an extending and/or correcting function. Although sponsored by a private group and aiding that group, the effect might promote the public interest by bringing the outgroups in or by promoting greater equity.

Within both of these arguments a third point is evident as well - policy issues rather than candidates' promises or images are the main substance of

'For a comprehensive discussion of this methodology see Austin Ranney, The Utility and Limitations of Aggregate Data in the Study of Electoral Behavior," in Ranney, ed., Essays on the Behavioral Study of Politics (Úrbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962),


*John E. Raker, Congressional Record, 47, May 22, 1911, p. 67 of Appendix.

politics. Because promises can be broken and images shattered, initiatives and referenda should be of prime importance to the electorate, as policy preferences are directly transformed into policy outputs.

A fourth assumption is an emphasis upon the importance of the individual as opposed to the group. If the prose of an earlier era can be forgiven, the purpose of direct legislation was to make "every man his own legislature.” • The system further "encourages every citizen however humble his position, to study problems of government, city and state, and to submit whatever solution he may evolve for the consideration and approval of others.... How different from the system so generally in force which tends to discourage and suppress the individual.”

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Closely related is a fifth assumption: studying the problems of government would lead to increased levels of citizen education and political efficacy. This assumption closely parallels classic Greek notions of the role the citizen should play in the polity.

To transform theory into practice in Washington State, four direct legislative mechanisms have been adopted. In contrast to the direct initiative to the people, an indirect initiative requires that the measure first be presented to the legislature which must enact or reject it by the end of the session. If it is rejected or no action is taken, the measure is then placed on the ballot at the next general election. To proceed with either type of initiative action, a petition must be signed by registered voters, their number being equivalent to 8 percent of the votes cast for governor at the last general election (118,000 signatures were required in 1973). For bills passed by the legislature which invoke the ire of the citizenry, 4 percent of those casting ballots for the governor may institute a petition for referendum, whereby the legislature is required to place a bill on the ballot. The legislature may also voluntarily refer bills to the people.


The topic of agenda setting has assumed increased importance in recent years, due in large part to emphasis given the notion of "non-decision making.” The act of setting the agenda by deciding which proposals to drop may be just as important a step as determining the outcome of those proposals which were retained.

As has been noted, one notion of the theory of direct legislation states that citizens acting as individuals should put forward proposals for public judgment, and secondly, that in comparison with the legislative process, the direct legislation mechanism should be subject to less, rather than greater, special interest

'James D. Barnett, The Operation of Initiative, Referendum, and Recall in Oregon (New York: Macmillan, 1915), p. 16.

'J. Bourne, "Initiative, Referendum and Recall," Atlantic Monthly, 109 (January 1012), 125-26.

'See especially Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz, "Two Faces of Power," American Political Science Review, 56 (December 1962), 949, and Bachrach and Baratz, "Decisions and Nondecisions: An Analytical Framework," American Political Science Review, 57 (September 1963), 641-42.

manipulation. In contrast to this theory, the group basis of politics has long been evident to political scientists, although the assumptions of what Theodore Lowi has called "interest group liberalism” have come under frequent attack." Even though the signature requirement to place a measure on the ballot insures that, in the initial stages at least, some kind of grouping must occur to gather signatures, the following hypotheses can be examined:

(1) If the agenda setting procedure resembles one of interest group pluralism, then wide variation should be evident in the (a) types of sponsors, and (b) the policy areas in which ballot measures are offered.

(2) If the process is to fulfill one of the requirements of direct legislation theory, then the proposed policies should affect all citizens equally, rather than affecting only a subset of individuals within the political unit.

As to the types of sponsors, undoubtedly direct legislation proponents prefer that as a perceived public need or danger arises, anomic or short-term interest groups would form spontaneously to promote or combat one particular policy proposal. Despite the organizational and monetary difficulties such groups entail, their appearances have not been rare in Washington: approximately a quarter of the initiatives from 1913 to 1973 spawned interest groups of this nature." Anomic groups are most likely to form in three areas: public morals, revenue and taxation, and government reform. In 1973 for example, a Seattle furniture salesman formed his own group and collected a record 669,621 signatures in three weeks' time on an initiative petition to limit legislative salary increases to 5 percent, in accordance with wage-price guidelines established nationally.

The long-established associational interest groups employing direct legislative devices have not necessarily been rich and powerful but have included the League of Women Voters, public employees, consumers, pensioners, and sportsmen. Educational forces have been active in many campaigns on propositions but have initiated few proposals. Bar and medical groups are among the few well-organized groups not using the initiative — their interests presumably being well served by the legislature. As might be expected, the well-financed agricultural, labor, and business groups have employed the initiative and sometimes the referendum at different points in time. In the period 1914 to 1940, labor and agricultural organizations, frequently in combination, placed twenty-seven measures before the electorate." Since 1940 they have found it necessary to

'Theodore Lowi, "The Public Philosophy: Interest Group Liberalism," American Political Science Review, 61 (March 1967), 5-24. Similar critiques are contained in William E. Connolly, ed., The Bias of Pluralism (New York: Atherton Press, 1969). Among the many classifications of interest groups, Gabriel A. Almond distinguishes between anomic, institutional, non-associational and associational. See Gabriel A. Almond, "A Functional Approach to Comparative Politics," in Gabriel A. Almond and Jaines S Coleman, eds, The Politics of Developing Areas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), pp. 33-34. Some qualitative judgments are necessary in applying the typology, as occasionally the esoteric name of the group appearing on the petition will be for the express purpose of hiding the identity of the sponsors. In addition a number of groups co-sponsoring a measure is not an uncommon occurrence.

"For a listing of sponsors to 1944 see Johnson, op. cit., pp. 53-64.

employ the devices only six times. However, public employees have resorted to the ballot five times in the last period in an effort to up-grade their profession. In contrast, business interests, including employer associations, hotelmen, and liquor interests, submitted only six propositions before 1940 and ten since that time. The legislature had a conservative cast before 1940 but business interests have been less successful in accomplishing their objectives since that time and they have, therefore, resorted to the direct legislation route. Property owners and sportsmen sponsored about an equal number in both time periods. Sportsmens' groups are frequent users of direct legislation and are often helped by outdoor recreation groups. Because of the constant rivalry between commercial and sports fishing the legislature is not always able to accommodate their conflict.



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Falloff refers to those who voted in the election but failed to vote for a certain proposition.

↑ Includes Direct and Indirect Initiatives

tt One initiative has been excluded, as it was not issued a ballot title.

This category includes such issues as finance and construction of highway projects, water and power, sewer systems, etc.

*Among the issues in this category are dog racing, private gambling, daylight savings time, etc.

§ Includes civil rights, Prohibition, regulation of the sale of alcoholic beverages, etc.

** Includes regulation of the method of election of officeholders, terms of office, salaries, and conduct while in office.

As for evaluating the policy areas of measures placed on the ballot, a central problem is determining an acceptable typology of issue areas. The classification in Table 1 has been adapted from Bruce Shepard's nationwide study of 470 local referenda." Utilizing this typology, the notion of pluralism among issue areas is sustained, as no one category represents over one-fifth of the total. Similar balance is evident in the state and local government category, as about half of the proposals have dealt with the manner in which politicians

"Shepard, op. cit., PP. 51-56.

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