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In Our View: Overturn Supermajority

Battle Ground school bond losses illustrate tyranny of the minority

The Columbian
Published: May 6, 2018, 6:03am

Twice this year, a majority of voters in the Battle Ground Public Schools district have supported a $224.9 million bond measure to build and remodel school buildings. A majority, however, is not good enough; a supermajority of 60 percent approval is required.

In the process, Washington law gives undue power to the minority; in a Feb. 13 Battle Ground bond election, 6,772 “no” votes carried more weight than the 9,616 people who favored the measure. This runs counter to the basic notion of majority rule that forms the foundation of our political system.

Battle Ground is not alone. The Peninsula district near Tacoma saw a bond measure “fail” last month with 59 percent of the vote, and The (Tacoma) News Tribune reports that at least 22 bond measures since 2011 in Eastern Washington have been defeated despite receiving at least 55 percent approval.

This runs counter to the normal standards of democracy and the notion of fair play that must govern elections. The Legislature next year should begin the process of removing the supermajority requirement that hampers attempts by school districts to construct and renovate buildings.

Such an effort will require an amendment to the state constitution, meaning that lawmakers must approve it and send it to voters. That calls for heavy lifting, but similar efforts have succeeded in the past; in 2007, the Legislature sent a constitutional amendment to the public to overturn a supermajority requirement for school levies, and the change passed with 50.6 percent of the vote. Levies provide funds for the day-to-day operation of schools, while bonds are long-term commitments for construction.

Notably, we will avoid criticizing those who voted against the Battle Ground bond measures. It is understandable that people are reluctant to vote for tax increases, and residents of the district have myriad personal reasons for rejecting the proposals. It probably did not help supporters’ cause that a one-year property-tax adjustment has many taxpayers throughout the state feeling a little stressed.

It also is understandable that citizens are reluctant to make it easier for tax increases to pass. Statewide ballot measures requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature for tax hikes have been passed six times by voters, only to be overturned by the courts or by lawmakers each time. That presents a slightly different argument because tax increases passed by the Legislature often do not involve a direct vote by the public. If voters disagree with how lawmakers conduct their business, they have intermittent opportunities to vote those lawmakers out of office.

School bonds, however, are the result of a direct vote of the public. When a majority of those who choose to cast a ballot support a measure, that measure should pass. In February, 59 percent of voters supported the Battle Ground bond, meaning that if 217 “no” votes had gone the other way, the measure would have been approved. In April, 54 percent of voters approved — which would be good enough in just about any other election.

Requiring 60 percent of the vote for approval amounts to tyranny of the minority, allowing two-fifths of the population (plus one) to override the desires of the other three-fifths. That would not be acceptable on a city council or a school board or the board of the local Little League; it certainly should not be acceptable for a vote that includes thousands of citizens.

The Legislature should work to overturn the supermajority requirement and send a constitutional amendment to the people.