Wednesday, December 11, 2019
Dec. 11, 2019

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In Our View: Don’t waste any of your time on advisory votes

The Columbian
Published: October 17, 2019, 6:03am

Consider this a public service. That, after all, is one of the primary duties of a newspaper.

So, as voters prepare to ponder the various ballot measures and candidates for the Nov. 5 election, The Columbian’s Editorial Board offers a suggestion designed to save you a little time: Ignore the advisory votes on the ballot.

Yes, we know that will be difficult, considering that there are 12 of them and that they will be placed near the top of the ballot. And we know that we frequently — incessantly? — urge citizens to engage in their civic duty and cast a vote. But the statewide advisory votes are akin to the hard plastic container on a new toy — they are annoying and do little more than delay getting to the good part.

Advisory votes are designed to give voters an opportunity to send a message to legislators whenever lawmakers approve a tax increase. That, indeed, is an important function of democracy, but it is best carried out by contacting your representative or voting for or against them at election time. Our democratic system provides many avenues for telling legislators what you think without putting a pointless advisory vote on the ballot.

Advisory votes, you see, are nonbinding, which Webster’s defines as, “having no legal or binding force.” Some synonyms are “inoperative, invalid, nonvalid, nugatory, and null and void.” We don’t know about you, but when something is nugatory, we might try to avoid it. In other words, the advisory votes are about as meaningful as asking voters whether the state capitol should be moved to Amboy.

State law, however, requires that the questions be printed on the ballot and included in the voters’ pamphlet, and we lament that trees have fallen for such a purpose.

In 2017, three advisory votes were the only statewide issues on a ballot consisting mostly of city council and school board races. Those advisory votes resulted in state expenditures of more than $550,000 because a statewide voters’ pamphlet would otherwise have been unnecessary. This year, there are a handful of statewide measures that would have required a voters’ guide with or without the advisory votes.

Advisory votes are a remnant of Tim Eyman’s Initiative 960, which was passed by voters in 2007. The initiative required a two-thirds vote in the Legislature for tax increases, but that portion was tossed out by the state Supreme Court, leaving only the meaningless advisory votes. It is kind of like somebody removing your steak and leaving only the parsley on your plate.

While the advisory votes are meaningless, the issues involved are not. The Legislature passed a slew of tax measures this year, leading to the 12 advisory votes. There are questions about the Business and Occupation tax, the real estate excise tax, taxes on petroleum and various other revenue-raising measures. In case you didn’t notice, lawmakers spent a lot of time passing taxes this year.

Whether or not voters approve of those taxes, the legislation calls for a meaningful response rather than an empty gesture. Calling, sending an email, or asking legislators about the taxes at a town hall will have more impact than an advisory vote. So will casting a vote when your local lawmaker is up for re-election.

Instead, we are fairly certain that legislators will ignore the results of the advisory votes and spend no time considering them. Voters should do the same.

With that, we conclude the public service portion of this message. You can thank us later.

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