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All eyes on (this) Washington

WWU Political Science Professor Todd Donovan on initiatives, money in politics and how the state’s election returns could be national news

Story by Curt Woodward (’02)

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Todd Donovan | Photo by Brett Flora

Sidebar: Bio on Todd Donovan

Bio on Todd Donovan

Award-winning Political Science Professor Todd Donovan has been at Western since 1991, developing an early focus on the “direct democracy” ballot measures that are so familiar to voters up and down the West Coast.

Along with his academic work, Donovan has served as an expert witness in numerous court cases and frequently is quoted by journalists trying to make sense of the political climate.

We recently asked for his take on the initiative campaigns, the rise of money in politics, and why all eyes could be on Washington this election.

On Washington’s busy initiative season – six initiatives are on the ballot this year, the second-most in state history: “This is really all big-money driven, paid petitioners. The same groups that you find being fairly influential in Olympia are using the initiative, rather than outside groups like you might have thought it was originally set up for. But that’s what California’s been like for decades.”

Is that different from the way it was intended? “Well, there’s this myth of a Golden Age when it was all grassroots and everything, and that’s not realistic.

“There have always been the ‘special interests’ using the process. But I think what’s different now is, at the same time you would get a mix of progressive groups, farm groups, the Grange and those kind of folks who could get their stuff on the ballot, too.”

Why is it so expensive? “The rules for getting on the ballot state that you need X percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. Well, back in 1914, that was a pretty manageable, small number. Even up into the ‘70s, that number was much lower.

“Now, with population growth, you’ve got the same fixed amount of time to get 300,000 signatures. There just aren’t that many groups that can do that using volunteers.”

Is that a bad thing? “I don’t think it’s necessarily, inherently bad.

“Even if it’s just established interest groups getting on the ballot, it sends signals to legislators about where the public is on these things, and it pushes the Legislature to pass policies that look more like what public opinion might want.”

On Democrats possibly losing majorities in Congress this fall: “History shows that in a midterm election, the president’s party loses seats. They’re going to lose seats. And when the economy’s in the toilet, they lose even more seats.

“I think what we’re kind of wondering at this point is, will they lose so many that they lose one or both houses nationally?

“The Democrats were really hoping for that recovery to kick in a couple of months ago, but it’s too late now. Even if it does start ticking up, it’s probably too late to bail them out completely.”

With an open Congressional seat in Southwestern Washington and a competitive Senate race, all eyes could be upon us: “I don’t know if it’d be a nightmare scenario, or if it’d be really kind of interesting: The election is held, the Democrats are at around minus-39 seats in the House and minus-eight or -nine in the Senate, and we’ve got a close Senate race and a close House race here. And we’re counting the votes for -- it could take weeks in Washington, right? And the entire country is waiting to see what happens.”

Why do voters favor one party in a presidential year and then revoke that power two years later? “It’s not people who used to be voting Democratic voting Republican. It’s people who were voting Democratic not showing up. All of those independents who in ‘08 were breaking with the Obama enthusiasm? They just don’t show up.

“As much as people like to say it’s something specific about Obama -- yeah, maybe. But he could be Mother Theresa and if the economy’s in the toilet, his party’s going to suffer.”

If the “wave” is big enough, it reaches down to the state Legislature’s campaigns: “In 2006, the No. 1 overriding issue everyone was concerned about was the Iraq war. So you had Republicans in competitive, marginal districts losing their seats because people were pissed off at George Bush. That’s gone.

“Even in ‘08 it was still the economy and Republicans were the incumbent party. So part of the wave is just going back to what normal would have been in those districts before 2006.”

Journalism alumnus Curt Woodward covers state politics for the Associated Press in Olympia. He interviewed Donovan on a freelance assignment for Window.