Initiative elections are less bought than they are just given away

More than a few buckets of ink have been spilled on the funding sources behind the campaigns facing voters on Nov. 8. No other issue sat more front and center of that debate concerning campaign financing than Initiative 1183, an effort to privatize liquor sales in Washington.

Wholesale giant Costco has been the chief backer of the initiative, spending some $22 million on campaign materials and television commercials. That spending level amounts to the most costly initiative campaign in the state’s history and equals more than $6 for every resident of Washington.

It was a significant gamble in an election where the Issaquah-based company could get a big payoff. The dismantling of the state monopoly on booze would lead to a potentially large new profit stream for the warehouse retailer. Economies of scale could further kick in Costco’s favor if it wins the state contract to operate the state’s liquor distribution system. Two companies are vying for that state contract, which should be decided later this year and will not be put to a public vote.

The measure would end Washington's state-run liquor system and allow stores larger than 10,000 square feet to sell liquor while generating more than $186 million in local revenue and $216 million in state funding during the first six years of operation, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

Opponents say that the expansion of liquor outlets would lead to more drinking and particularly the illegal sale of hard booze to minors. The $5 million “Protect our Communities” campaign against the initiative is funded almost entirely by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. Members of the wholesale liquor association most certainly could lose pricing power if Costco enters the playing field.

So, on its face, the initiative pits one large business interest against another in an arms race of campaign spending to win over Washington voters. But that surface look misses the point. Sure, statistics support the notion that the more a cause or candidate spends on campaigns increases the chance for a positive outcome. But the size of the war chest could also simply mean more supporters even if those supporters are pooled into one corporate check.

The election, any election, is not won by flooding the airwaves or print ads with propaganda just like conventional wars are never won from the air. Victory requires feet on the ground. And in that effort, Washington residents surrendered long before the campaign battle even started.

Washington was a trailblazer in politics when it was the first state to allow initiatives and referendums in 1912. Voting rates at that time hovered at about 70 percent. Campaigns mounted town hall forums to debate the issues at hand. Those days are over. Only about 50 percent of Washington residents who have the civic responsibility to vote ever bother to cast their ballot.

What was once a grassroots effort has evolved into an industry of its own. Many voters sign petitions held by paid signature gatherers, who may know few details of the initiative and entice people to sign with short phrases such as “this will lower your taxes” or “this will make children safer.”

Our political system, at the state and federal levels, is a representative republic. We elect senators and representatives who carefully consider legislation, delving into details in long committee meetings. Initiatives are an element of democracy – the masses vote and the majority rules. Combining these differing systems has resulted in poorly crafted legislation such as the medical marijuana law, or policies with no identified funding source, as was the case with the initiative passed that called for higher teacher salaries.

Perhaps states that lack the initiative process are better off.

While people complain about some people “buying” an election, they either opt out of playing a role in the process or insult the people who do by saying voters can be bought for a few dollars per ballot on campaign spending. While it may be difficult to comprehend that corporations are considered “people,” when it comes to free speech and campaign spending that is the case. The highest court in the land has already sided on corporate personhood in last year’s "Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission" Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Businesses like Costco and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America are well within their Constitutionally protected rights to free speech to spend their dollars to support their business goals through the campaign process. State voters have the right to do the same and vote for the issues that impact them.

Too bad most do not.


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