Skip to main content

Originally published February 20, 2012 at 4:01 PM | Page modified February 21, 2012 at 10:42 AM

  • Share:
  • Comments ((0))
  • Print

Corrected version

Consider Washington's populist tradition as the state's initiative and referendum turn 100

The Seattle Times editorial board salutes the 100th birthday of voter initiatives and referendums in Washington.

Seattle Times Editorial

No comments have been posted to this article.


THE initiative and referendum are 100 years old in Washington. Pause to consider their birthday, and wish them another century.

Progressive lawmakers established them, and in some matters the voters have used them for social change. In 1970, the people legalized abortion by initiative. In 2009, they legalized assisted suicide by initiative. In 2010, the Legislature passed a same-sex civil-unions law, opponents forced a referendum on it and voters approved the law. This November, voters may have a referendum on the gay-marriage bill just enacted.

In 1998, the people of Washington legalized medical marijuana by initiative. This November, they will vote on Initiative 502, to legalize marijuana generally.

Washington's system of elections has been designed partly by initiative. In an initiative to the Legislature in1935, the people petitioned for the blanket primary, which allowed voters to choose nominees of either party on the same ballot. The Legislature approved it. When that was declared unconstitutional, and the Legislature and Gov. Gary Locke replaced it with the pick-a-party primary, the voters rebelled. In 2004, they approved the top-two primary.

The state's system of campaign-finance disclosure came by initiative in 1972. Sales tax was lifted from groceries by an initiative in 1977.

On some matters, the voters have been reluctant to change. Several times — most recently in 2010 — they rejected an income tax, always by large margins. Over the years voters rejected school vouchers, dog racing, mandatory bottle deposits and mandatory gun locks.

Sometimes voters have been reversed by courts or the Legislature, or they reversed themselves. The first initiative they approved, in 1914, was to shut down all trade in alcoholic beverages. In 1932, they voted to open it up again. In 2010, voters decided to keep the state in the liquor business; in 2011, they voted to get it out.

The liquor-store initiatives involved tens of millions of dollars in contributions on both sides. Commercial interests have been involved since the beginning. The 1914 measure was fought by the distillers and brewers, who lost. A 1948 measure to legalize mixed drinks was promoted by hotel owners, who won.

Part of the reason for public votes is to get around lobbies that can stop things in the Legislature. For years, it was illegal for margarine to be colored yellow, because the dairy industry didn't want it to look like butter. The Legislature didn't change that law, but in 1952, the people did.

The initiative and referendum, born out of Washington's populist roots, still give individual citizens a say in state policies. Probably more for good than ill, they have shaped our state.

Originally, this editorial did not make it clear that the blanket primary was the result of an initiative to the Legislature.

 Subscribe today!

Subscribe today!

99¢ for four weeks of unlimited digital access.



NDN Video