Wikimedia photo: The Washington State Capitol building in Olympia.
Wikimedia photo: The Washington State Capitol building in Olympia.

The Washington State Senate’s Committee on State Government and Elections convened Feb. 3 via video conference to discuss a bill that would put an end to one of the Evergreen State’s most divisive electoral practices — the inclusion of advisory votes on ballots.

Residents who have ever voted in a Washington election may be familiar with advisory votes. These ballot measures are the first items to appear on ballots — coming even before the presidential candidates, and they ask voters whether they want to “repeal” or “maintain” changes to state taxes imposed by the state Legislature. Advisory votes were created in 2007 by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman and started appearing on ballots in 2012. Since then, dozens of these measures have appeared on Washingtonians’ ballots. There were so many advisory votes in 2019 that they covered the entire first page of the ballot.

Despite their prominence on the ballot itself, advisory votes essentially do nothing; they are non-binding, so even if voters vote to repeal a tax by overwhelming margins, lawmakers are under no obligation to do anything about it. Of all the advisory votes over the years, none has led to a change in the state’s tax policy.

Local liberal groups have spent years trying to eliminate advisory votes, and Senate Bill 5182 is the latest iteration of these efforts. If passed into law, the bill would repeal the requirement that advisory votes appear on Washingtonians’ ballots and would mandate that extra tax and spending data appear in voter information pamphlets.

On Jan. 20, the Senate Committee on State Government heard witnesses from both sides of the debate make the case for and against advisory votes.

Eyman appealed for lawmakers to reject the proposed bill, arguing that advisory votes are “an eminently successful effort to educate voters on how much their taxes went up.”

He followed that argument up with a simple message for legislators who dislike advisory votes: “Stop raising taxes! Then there is no advisory vote!”

Campaigners on the other side of this debate brought a barrage of criticisms against the advisory votes — or as they prefer to call them, “push polls.”

Andrew Villeneuve, the executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, built an argument based on the way these ballot questions are framed.

He said advisory votes are “anti-tax messages that are dressed up to look like ballot measures,” and that they “violate every single guideline for asking unbiased questions.”

He summarized his argument by saying, “People are not being asked for their opinion here. Rather they’re being told what to think.”

Patrick Schoettmer, a political science professor at Seattle University, went even further than Villeneuve, saying that advisory votes are “a form of voter suppression.”

Schoettmer recounted evidence that advisory votes confuse and discourage voters from participating in the democratic process.

The committee met again last week in an executive session to determine whether or not Senate Bill 5182 will progress.

During discussion, Sen. Jeff Wilson (R.-Longview) proposed two amendments that would keep advisory votes on the ballot, but both were rejected by the other committee members, (three Democrats and one Republican).

At the end of the discussion, the committee voted 4-1 to move the bill forward to the Senate Rules Committee, with Wilson the lone dissenting vote.

If the bill is approved by the Rules Committee, it will go to a Senate floor vote and be passed onto committees in the House of Representatives.