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On National Issues...

Court Upholds Privatizing Washington State Election

It's illegal to buy somebody's vote but a judge in Washington State has ruled that it's perfectly legal to buy an entire election.

Superior Court Judge Gary Taylor last month upheld a special election authorizing taxpayer financing of a new $425 million football stadium. Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, who had an option to buy the Seattle Seahawks if the stadium was approved, sought the referendum and paid the $4 million it cost the state to run the election. He claimed a July 1 deadline to buy the NFL team required an unprecedented summertime vote. (Ordinary citizens seeking a ballot initiative must petition for a referendum that is typically held on a regularly scheduled Election Day.)

Allen, one of the world's richest people, also spent millions campaigning for a "yes" vote. Voters approved the measure by a slender 36,700 votes out of 1.6 million cast.

Steve Eugster, a lawyer who sued the state on behalf of a stadium opponent, contended it was illegal for the Legislature to call a special election bankrolled by a party with a direct financial stake in the outcome. A provision nullifying the vote if Allen didn't reimburse the state effectively gave Allen the governor's veto power, Eugster argued.

The state and lawyers for Allen countered that the courts can overturn a popular vote only in the "gravest" circumstance.

Taylor agreed: "It was an issue brought about by someone prominent. However, that's not the same as saying that this was an election for sale. No one knew the outcome of this election. It was in question to the end."

But the referendum sets a troubling precedent. Do wealthy individuals and interests able to pay for an election now have access to state ballots unavailable to ordinary citizens and less affluent groups? Eugster has pledged to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

(from the Nov. 15 1997 issue of Capital Eye published by the Center for Responsive politics.)

Shades of Nukohi! Remember that controversial referendum on Kauai, also paid for by a private party who had an interest in the outcome? The adopted position of the LWVHI is that elections are public business and should be funded by public money to ensure fairness. Paying for a special election may allow a private party to influence the timing of the election to its own advantage. Equally important, private funding may be perceived as conferring such an advantage, further undermining the public's faith in the integrity of the election process. Therefore, private funds to pay for elections should not be solicited or accepted.

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