In Our View: Get to Point on Ballot

Failure of initiatives 522, 517 show voters don't like complicated, self-serving laws



Foremost among the fallout from Tuesday’s election is this lesson: If you wish to appeal to the sensibilities of the voters, don’t allow policy wonks to write your ballot measures.I-522 is the perfect example. The initiative, which would have made Washington the first state in the union to require labels on genetically modified food products, went down to defeat in a high-profile race. Proponents undoubtedly will blame powerful agri-businesses — primarily Monsanto, which has come to personify a particular brand of evil in the minds of some — for dooming the measure to failure. That thinking contains a kernel of truth, as the “No” campaign on I-522 drew $22 million in donations, with $550 of that coming from Washington residents. In defeating the measure, opponents held a 3-to-1 spending advantage over proponents, who drew 70 percent of their funding from out-of-state businesses and organizations.

But in the end, I-522 was doomed because voters saw through the overzealous advocacy contained within. Scratch that. Maybe voters couldn’t see through the overly dense wording, regulations, and exemptions contained in the measure. Rather than reach for a logical, attainable goal such as placing warning labels on the side of packages along with the nutritional information that’s already there, I-522 would have required warning labels to be displayed “clearly and conspicuously.” Proponents didn’t wish to inform consumers; they wished to vilify food producers who use even a small amount of genetically modified product, ignoring the fact that some modifications are helpful to the environment or healthful to consumers. To that end, they produced an overly wordy, overly complicated bill that obfuscated the purpose of the measure.

“The facts show that I-522 was a badly written initiative that deserved to be voted down,” Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for the No on I-522 campaign, told The Seattle Times. “We knew from the beginning that the more voters knew about Initiative 522, the less they’re going to like it.”

Initiative 517, the other statewide ballot measure, faced similar problems and suffered a rousing defeat. As the brainchild of conservative activist Tim Eyman, who has made a career of qualifying initiatives for the ballot and then working to get them passed, I-517 was a solution in search of a problem. It would have expanded the rights of signature gatherers at the expense of private businesses, but voters saw through the efforts to wrap the measure in a cloak of democracy and the “rights of the people.” Citizens’ rights and their ability to land initiatives on the Washington ballot are protected perfectly well as it is.

The first thought is to suggest that voters in Washington are simply predisposed to rejecting statewide ballot measures. But the previous year, the electorate approved charter schools and legalized marijuana while also affirming same-sex marriage. It’s not that Washington voters are averse to saying “yes”; it’s that they are inclined to not favor bad laws.

Because of that, we fully expect the issue of genetically modified foods to appear in front of voters again soon. Despite a loss at the ballot box, supporters of I-522 were wildly successful in raising awareness of the issue while generating support for their message, even if they couldn’t garner enough support for this particular ballot measure. “The movement continues,” said state Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, chair of the “Yes” campaign. Here’s hoping that supporters learn from their mistakes this time around.