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Across Our State

History of initiatives dates back 100 years

We've become quite familiar with initiatives lately. When did they become law, how effective have they been in our State's history, and what does it take to sponsor one? These are the questions that sent me on an investigative tour of some offices in Olympia-the office of Secretary of State who supervises elections; the State Archives where all kinds of documents are stored and made available; and BIAW whose director Tom McCabe led the successful I-841 campaign.

First to the archives. Chief archivist, Jerry Handfield, directed me to the October 1944 Pacific Northwest Quarterly and an article by Claudius O. Johnson. Oregon was among the first states to approve both the initiative and the referendum as a method of direct legislation because of the work of a member of the Populist Party, William Simon U'Ren. U'Ren wrote the legislation but couldn't find interest in the Oregon legislature, so he ran for the Oregon House. After he was elected, the House did not organize in 1897 because of his plans. In 1899 both houses passed his bill. It was approved by the people in 1902. Between 1904 and 1910 the people of Oregon had to decide on 64 measures that were submitted directly to them.

After the death in 1901 of populist governor John R. Rogers, Washington groups looked at the events to the south with much interest. They felt "back-room" politics between legislators and lobbyists happened with regularity. Farm groups, especially the Grange, began to plan for an initiative and referendum system in our state.

In 1905 C.B. Kegley of Pullman was elected State Grange Master and he kept this as his number one issue until it was adopted in 1912. By that time many others had joined with the Grange.

It is interesting to read how the Grange organized the campaign to get their legislation. In the 1902 convention the members were instructed to appoint a committee in each county to interview prospective legislative candidates and persuade them to secure passage of the direct legislation proposal. In the 1903 convention the members were told to begin a "campaign of education now, and cooperate with all other organizations who are working in favor of this measure."

One story by Fred Chamberlin in the Grange News of May 30, 1919 tells that as the Senate was debating the Grange-sponsored legislation, grim-faced farmers filled the galleries. This made one Senator so uneasy that he turned to them shouting they should "be home raising crops instead of in Olympia raising hell."

The Secretary of State's office produces a website where we can find every initiative that has been filed, its subject, and what happened to it. The first initiative was filed on January 2, 1914. Its subject was prohibition. It was later refiled as number 3 and approved on Nov. 3, 1914, by a vote of 189,840 for and 171,208 against. A total of 799 initiatives have been filed between 1914 and 2002. Only 118 were certified; of those exactly half have passed and half rejected by the people. That website is

It is interesting to note that in the month of January this year, 26 have already been filed. We won't know until much closer to election time whether or not they will be certified with the proper number of signatures by registered voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

Then I talked to Tom McCabe about the process of getting an initiative passed. There are three hurdles to surmount according to Tom. The first one is that high threshold for signatures. Last year that number was 198,000, but at least 20 percent more are needed to be sure the signers are registered voters in our State. The second hurdle is to educate the voters. Voters are more likely to vote NO if the issue is not taxation-related and if it is more difficult to understand. The last hurdle is the resistance to making legislation this way. Government and governmental agencies feel power being taken from them.

What about the money it takes to run a successful campaign? BIAW members raised $1.1 million in supporting an anti-ergonomic regulations initiative. An additional $400,000 came from others. It's expensive, but the impacts of ergonomics would have been so much more costly to their members and to the job market in general in our State.

The initiative process was little used in the 40's and 50's. There seems to be an increased interest in it now. I just hope it is used well and wisely so that it can be one of the tools for better government.

Jerri Honeyford, wife of Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), provides her Across our State column as her take on the legislative happenings currently underway in Olympia.


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