Surprises in Washington

November 08, 1991

Initiative campaigns are as close as this country gets to direct democracy. That lends special interest to the game of analyzing the results, especially when the ballot questions center on controversial issues like those facing Washington state voters earlier this week. Two of those measures -- strict term limits on elected officials and a measure that would, for the first time, legalize a physician's active assistance in dying -- were sharp challenges to the status quo in politics and health care. Both were defeated, but neither idea is dead.

In the case of term limits, House Speaker Tom Foley led the successful fight to persuade voters that acting unilaterally, rather than waiting for a national consensus, would only put Washington state at a disadvantage, especially in regional competition with California for water and other resources.

Opponents of aid-in-dying hammered away at what they considered a lack of safeguards for such a serious decision. They also received a boost from the latest escapades of Jack "Dr. Death" Kevorkian who, during the height of the campaign, helped two more woman to commit suicide. His actions would not have been legal under the proposed Washington law -- neither woman fit the definition of terminally ill. But as one supporter of the initiative noted, Kevorkian enabled the opponents to put a face on all their fears.

Washington state voters are known for being relatively well-informed. Both of these initiatives touched off hard-fought campaigns; neither of them met overwhelming defeat; and supporters of term limits and aid-in-dying have vowed to fight on in other states, applying the lessons learned in Washington. Term limits and aid-in-dying suffered setbacks, but it's premature for their opponents to declare a final victory.

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