Sure, advisory votes are cumbersome, confusing and probably pernicious.
Their prominence on the ballot suggests importance (this year’s dozen take up most of the first page), but their oddball phrasing and lack of context make them hard to figure out how.
Any time the Legislature passes a tax increase, an advisory vote is placed on the next general election ballot. Each increase triggers a separate advisory vote. The results will not change the law.
But with an overhaul, these strange outliers in our state’s otherwise accessible and information-rich election ecosystem might do what supporters say they’re supposed to do — provide feedback for lawmakers and help inform voters about what happens after the ballots have been counted and the yard signs taken down.
Tim Eyman, who helped create the advisory votes through initiative, calls them a “tax increase report card,” but legislators and elections officials say voters don’t understand them. The Northwest Progressive Institute calls them push-polls to spread anti-tax propaganda. King County Elections Director Julie Wise has called them “silly, misleading and dangerous,” adding in testimony before a state Senate committee last February, “When we ask people to vote on things and their vote doesn’t have any impact, we erode public trust.”
When I asked readers to share their election-related questions, confusion over advisory votes dominated their responses. Here’s a sampling, edited for clarity:
“What the heck. Does Olympia want me to decide whether to repeal or maintain billions worth of taxes on companies or items I know nothing about!? … I am still trying to figure the meaning of ‘for government spending.’ “
“Why are there so many issues where the Legislature imposed, extended or increased [taxes] without a vote of the people?”
“I have no idea how to vote on the advisory issues,” another reader wrote.
As a first-time Washington voter, if I hadn’t already been tipped off to them, I would also have been confused.
They are the remnants of the 20-year wrestling match between voters and legislators over whether the state should require a voter-approved referendum or a two-thirds legislative vote to increase taxes. The state Supreme Court ultimately settled that question when it declared the supermajority requirement unconstitutional. The decision left the advisories intact. The first two appeared on the 2012 ballot.
The design flaws trace back to the deeply prescriptive Initiative 960, which voters first approved in 2007.
It’s the source of the stilted description, directing the Attorney General to fill out the following Mad Libs-style template, using no more than 33 words:
“The legislature imposed, without a vote of the people, (identification of tax and description of increase), costing (most up-to-date ten-year cost projection, expressed in dollars and rounded to the nearest million) in its first ten years, for government spending.”
It sets up the false choice of whether the tax increase should be “repealed” or “maintained” — a power voters do not have.
It’s the reason there are no statements for or against the tax increases, no descriptive title or explanatory statements to help voters understand lawmakers’ decisions. Eyman tells me that’s because he wanted to be sure the descriptions were factual and clear. He says if lawmakers wanted to put more information on the ballot, they could put tax hikes up for referendum — which he clearly would prefer.
Eyman has a point when he says it’s difficult for voters to keep track of everything that happens in the statehouse. But as they are now, advisory votes offer little clarity. Of course, tax increases will be used “for government spending.” The critical, unanswered question is, “how?”
Perhaps most important, as Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, told me last week, advisory votes are too little, too late to influence Olympia. They are cast and counted only after the law is on the books. Given the amount of time and horse-trading that goes in to lawmaking, it’s naive or misleading to suggest that an up-or-down vote of the people would lead lawmakers to say, “You know what? Never mind. We’ll scrap it and start over next year.”
Last spring, Kuderer sponsored a bill that would have eliminated advisory votes. It passed with bipartisan support in the Senate but stalled in the House. She’ll try again this year.
But she also is open to the idea of reworking the advisories, if voters want them, perhaps convening a task force to study a better way to go about it. It’s a discussion worth having before junking these clunkers.
Clearly, voters are trying to do their civic duty where advisory votes are concerned. Last year, nearly a half-million more voters weighed in on Advisory Vote No. 19 than did in a contested race for a Washington Supreme Court seat. And some of the tax increases do receive voters’ blessing, for what it’s worth.
Retooled and clarified, advisory votes might earn a spot on the ballot by helping voters connect the dots between elections. That would be a worthwhile use of paper, ink and time.