We need to foster a loyal opposition to address ballot measures

Re: “Voters guide statement fiascos show change is needed” (editorial, 1-4).

Agreed! Democracy thrives when there is strong debate. Voters deserve effective pro and con arguments for every ballot measure.

But what needs to change?

As Pierce County auditor, I’ve contemplated this issue probably more than anyone. The process bedevils me, yields uneven results and the Voters’ Pamphlet is too often left with swaths of blank space where an “Against” statement should be.

And yet, I don’t believe that new laws or more laws are the answer. Instead, I think that local governments and citizens need to engage each other and work harder.

The existing process is simple. State law requires local governments like cities and school districts to appoint pro and con committees whenever the jurisdiction proposes a ballot measure. There is only one criterion for committee appointment: “persons known to favor the measure” and “persons known to oppose the measure.”

The Legislature wrote this statute broadly to allow wide-ranging participation and to honor the local authority of local governments. Arguably, they left local governments to establish their own selection criteria and appointment process (as the Pierce County Council did recently).

Local governments are best-suited to appoint committees. Concerned citizens don’t visit the Auditor’s Office to improve classroom test scores, see a fire district budget or read a city’s street improvement plan. They reach out to the school district, the fire commission and city hall. Jurisdictions like these remain the best places to recruit and appoint committees for specific ballot measures.

Should someone step in and impose higher, tighter standards? No. Local government doesn’t need a big brother. Besides, neither the Pierce County Council nor the Pierce County auditor can unilaterally impose criteria on another jurisdiction’s appointment process.

Silencing unpopular voices isn’t the answer either. When bureaucracies invent rules to thwart a single individual, we only end up with silly rules that rarely achieve the desired effect. And how would we create criteria to exclude someone with a notorious or unpleasant reputation without compromising freedom of speech?

We don’t need rules to keep people out. We need more people who want in. Rather than scapegoat individuals we disdain, let’s concentrate on our personal responsibility. We have dreadful participation rates, entirely unrelated to one or two pesky individuals.

Over the past six years, 213 local ballot measures have appeared in the Pierce County Voters’ Pamphlet. There were 204 “For” committees and only 55 “Against” committees. That means that there have been 158 instances (74 percent) since 2006 where no counterpoint was available for consideration.

What to do?

First, jurisdictions must increase transparency and work harder to recruit opinions for “Against” statements (advertise, conduct outreach).

Second, citizens need to answer the call. We must recommit ourselves to civic responsibilities.

Pierce County needs a loyal opposition. With a community so rich with writers, political activists and academics, might a few dozen organize into small groups? Can you imagine several citizen groups standing at the ready to write “Against” statements? What a noble service: To volunteer to be an opposing voice, organized in advance, poised and waiting to write arguments in a constructive, responsible tone.

Regardless of the topic or jurisdiction, these citizens could name their committees and make themselves “known to be against” any unchallenged ballot measures in any jurisdiction.

In sum, if you don’t like who is standing on Speakers’ Corner, get on that soap box yourself. Bring a friend. Form a committee. Then raise your hand.