Washington and Wisconsin enact laws limiting advisory questions on ballots

Washington and Wisconsin passed bills during their 2023 legislative sessions that limited non-binding questions, also known as advisory questions or advisory votes, on election ballots.

These two bills are among 349 legislative proposals introduced in 2023 that concern topics related to direct democracy, including ballot measures, initiatives, veto referendums, referrals, local ballot measures, and recall elections. As of June 24, 28 of these proposals have been enacted into law, with the bills in Washington and Wisconsin being the only ones specifically addressing advisory questions.

In Washington, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5082 (SB 5082), which repealed a provision of Initiative 960, approved in 2007, that required advisory votes on legislation to increase taxes.

State Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-48), who supported SB 5082, said, “Advisory votes are non-binding referendums that do not carry any legal weight. They have no real impact on policymaking. These votes only pollute our ballots with anti-tax propaganda specifically designed to instill distrust in government—and they do it on our most fundamental sanctuary of democracy, the ballot.”

The Washington Senate Republican Caucus issued a statement opposing SB 5082, which said, “Proponents of taking away advisory votes argue that they are confusing or that voters get frustrated because the taxes they disapprove of aren’t reversed. Maybe the answer is to actually listen to the voters instead of taking their voice away? Democracy in on the ballot when it comes to advisory votes and the will of the people.”

Since 2012, Washington voters have decided on 40 statewide advisory questions, with 30 of them resulting in a majority of voters wanting to repeal the tax increases and 10 of them resulting in a majority of voters wanting to keep the tax increases. There were no statewide advisory votes related to other issues or topics.

Democrats control the House, Senate, and governor’s office in Washington, making the state a Democratic trifecta. SB 5082 received support from 29 Democrats and one Republican in the Senate, while all 40 Republicans opposed it in the House. Of the 58 Democrats in the House, three voted against the bill. Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed the legislation on April 20, 2023.

In Wisconsin, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 245 (AB 245), an omnibus bill addressing shared revenue for counties and municipalities and taxes. The legislation also included a provision prohibiting local governments from placing non-binding advisory questions on the ballot, except questions related to (1) capital expenditures funded by property taxes; local shared revenue agreements; cooperative boundary agreements; and certain cable and telecommunication operations.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-63) said local non-binding questions should not be used for local issues, not other topics. “That’s not the point. That’s what elections are about. We should have had advisory referenda only for things that are directly related to what is being done [in] that municipality,” said Vos.

Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said, “But now you don’t even want us to have the ability to offer our views on advisory referendums that have no binding power and only act as a vehicle of public speech. You want to impound that vehicle, and that’s outrageous. Advisory referendums provide the public with crucial ways to express themselves on vital issues of the day, and to communicate with you and other elected officials.”

Ballotpedia covers local ballot measures in the top 100 largest cities and state capitals. In Wisconsin, this includes Milwaukee and Madison. Since 2021, Milwaukee and Madison have referred a combined 12 non-binding advisory questions to the ballot, none of which would have been permitted under AB 245. In 2022 and 2023, voters were asked about abortion, firearms, marijuana, and redistricting between the two cities.

Wisconsin has a divided government, with Republicans controlling the Assembly and Senate, while the governor, Tony Evers, is a Democrat. In the Assembly, the vote was 56 to 36, with all Democrats opposing the bill, 56 Republicans voting for the bill, and three Republicans voting against the bill. In the Senate, the vote was 21 to 12, with Democrats voting 6-5 and Republicans voting 15-7.