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Explaining Washington state’s advisory votes: Why we have them, and what they mean

(MyNorthwest Photo)

Among the questions being posed to voters in Washington this year are four advisory votes. We’ve heard from some voters who are confused by these, so we went to Secretary of State Kim Wyman for an explanation.

MyNorthwest 2020 Voters Guide

“Advisory votes came out of an initiative several years ago that require any tax or fee increase that’s passed by the state Legislature to appear in the voters’ pamphlet and on the November General Election ballot in an advisory capacity, where voters get to express their support or their opposition to the passage of those fee and tax measures,” Wyman explained.

Advisory votes are the result of a Tim Eyman initiative and first landed on your ballot in 2012. But what does it actually mean when you cast your vote for these?

“They don’t have any kind of legal binding, other than they will show that voters that participated in the election approved or disapproved of that tax measure by whatever percentage rate they are approved or rejected by,” Wyman said.

Last year’s ballot saw a dozen advisory votes on the ballot, and there’s been a lot of criticism, including from Democratic Senator Patty Kuderer, who pushed to change the law during the last two legislative sessions.

“We know that the way that they’re currently designed, they are meant to influence opinion,” Kuderer said during a February committee hearing on a proposed bill tweak how the state handles advisory votes. “They are really taxpayer funded push polls that have the intent of fostering a negative impression of government and of how taxes are used.”

But others like Republican Senator Hans Zeiger, who had supported the bill a year earlier, say they’re about accountability.

“I now believe that we should keep them for one simple reason: They are a means by which the public can keep track of our tax decisions. The Legislature made many such decisions in 2019, and it is appropriate that the public would be apprised of them and have a chance to provide an opinion,” he said during the debate.

“In the state voters’ pamphlet [2019] it cost the state $160,000 overall and the counties spent something like $363,000 just to publish the statements in the voters’ pamphlets, so while Mr. Eyman is trying to save us money, he’s also making us spend a bunch,” offered Democratic Senator Sam Hunt.

But for Republican Senator Ron Muzzall, it came down to one point.

“The best disinfectant is the light of day, and this was a citizen initiative, this is the light of day — we can argue about the correct phraseology of these, but the reality of life, the voters spoke, they wanted it in front of them. I can’t vote to overturn that or even move to overturn that because it was the desire of the people,” he said.

The bill to tweak the law failed to get out of committee, leaving advisory votes on the ballot. This year, there are four total, asking voters for their opinions on taxes passed in the previous session on pass-through charges for grocery bags, heavy equipment rentals, and a pair of B&O taxes.

No matter which way you vote on them, the laws – or taxes – are already on the books, and even if a huge majority of voters say they are against them after the fact, most lawmakers say it is highly unlikely you’ll see the Legislature come back and move to change them.

So what is the point? Some say, for many people it is the only way they have any idea what the Legislature does when it comes to their tax dollars.

Wyman worries about the confusion advisory votes cause for voters, and believes the state law already in place for voters to show their distaste for something the Legislature does is the better option.

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“There is an actual process in law called the referendum process, where voters that don’t like a law that’s passed can circulate a petition, can get signatures to place that referendum on the ballot, and then that gives voters the legal opportunity to accept or reject a ballot so they are different. An advisory vote is just that it is advisory in nature, whereas referendum is a binding action that voters can take,” Wyman said.

For now, advisory votes remain on the ballot.

Ballots must be postmarked or in an official drop box by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 3. Monday is the last day to register to vote by mail or online in Washington state, but don’t panic if you can’t get to it. If you need to update your voter registration or register you can still do it online here. After Monday, you can register in person at your county elections office through Election Day.

Washington has same-day voter registration, which allows you to register to vote in person at your county elections office all the way up through 8 p.m. on Election Day. As of Monday morning, nearly 42% of voters in the state had returned their ballots. That number is expected to reach as much as 90% by some projections.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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