Anthony Williams, a Democrat, was D.C. mayor from 1999 to 2007. He is chief executive and executive director of the Federal City Council.
A strange thing happened this summer. Initiative 77, which, in its most simplistic characterization, increased the minimum wage for tipped workers, was approved in a primary election in June. At first glance and in such a progressive city, this seemed reasonable and maybe expected.
But hold on. Initiative 77 was a mistake. Nearly all the city’s leaders were united in opposition to the initiative. These same leaders have engineered among the most progressive worker protections and social safety net of any city in the country. Many of the people progressive voters might have assumed would benefit — tipped restaurant staff — opposed the measure in fear that it would bring down their overall wages or mean less work. Soon after the initiative passed, D.C. Council members and the mayor pledged to repeal or amend it.
We are facing a situation that is never good for a democracy. The people appear to have spoken, and yet their elected officials are saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.” There are plenty of economic reasons Initiative 77 should not have passed. Another reason is procedural: the District’s flawed ballot initiative process.
Initiative 77 had no place on a primary ballot. Any ballot initiative should get the most popular input to best capture median public opinion. But June’s primary was hardly an accurate snapshot. In this primary, only 19 percent of registered voters showed up, the lowest turnout in three decades. Partisans always have a disproportionate showing in primaries. Independents make up 17 percent of registered voters, but only 6 percent voted in June.
Many independents may have stayed home because they assumed, as with other D.C. primaries, that this one was closed to everyone but card-carrying Democrats and Republicans. This year’s was a confusing exception. Other voters probably stayed home because they assumed final decisions — of candidates and of any ballot initiatives — would be made (as they usually are) in November.
Ballot initiatives in their modern form are not always a healthy democratic exercise. They were embraced by progressives in the early 1900s to circumvent corrupt political machines. A slew of mostly young Western states began allowing ballot initiatives. Go to the people, it was thought, to point the way.
But ballot initiatives are hardly “local” anymore. Out-of-state interests and money are butting in. Take one example: For South Dakota’s hotly contested 2016 ballot initiative, an estimated 75 percent of campaign money on all sides came from out of state. For Initiative 77, a group called Restaurant Opportunities Center United, based in New York City and California, organized and financed much of the “yes” campaign from the beginning. Initiative 77 was not a homegrown campaign. A Post editorial called the measure a “solution in search of a problem.”
Nor are ballot initiatives always an effective economic policymaking tool. Ballot initiatives offer voters choices that are dissociated from costs or complexity. Yet policymaking is all about careful deliberation and negotiation of trade-offs, which elected legislatures grapple with on a day-to-day basis. This is especially crucial for budgeting for state and local governments, which cannot print money to close a deficit. Binding California ballot initiatives have infamously made a mess of that state’s finances. With Initiative 77, did voters understand that some workers’ wages could go down because patrons might tip less?
Ballot initiatives offer only a yes-or-no choice when multifaceted solutions designed by legislators often are more sensible. This is exactly what the D.C. Council is promising: to spend the fall deliberating over a solution for tipped workers that better fits their problems.
The District could take a cue from where other states are going with ballot initiative procedures. Fewer than half of states allow ballot initiatives in the first place. No states have joined that roster since the 1970s. A National Conference of State Legislatures task force advised states without ballot initiatives against making the switch. Only a handful of states allow ballot initiatives in primaries, and states are moving away from the practice in favor of only general-election ballot initiatives. Most other reforms are reining in rather than loosening ballot initiative requirements — for example, preventing abuse from out-of-state interests or making sure petition gathering is done by local volunteers rather than paid staff.
Initiative 77 should be repealed. Practically the District’s entire political establishment has lined up against it. Helping tipped workers is a complicated policy matter that should have always been left to the District’s legislative body. We should rethink the District’s ballot initiative procedures so that such a ballot initiative fiasco doesn’t happen again.