Why did I-522 fail?

By Brittany Hale

I’m not going to lie; I was disappointed that Initiative 522 failed to pass, and I still am. After I-522’s defeat, I began to wonder how any initiative that didn’t benefit big businesses would be able to compete, especially when the other side has seemingly unlimited resources?

“No on 522” raised over $20 million dollars, setting a record for the most money spent to defeat an initiative in Washington State. Not surprisingly, essentially all of that money came from out of state. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a Washington D.C. based group, was one of the largest donors. Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer also threw in a couple million to ensure that I-522 tanked. Sadly, “Yes on 522” was only able to raise a meager $7.8 million.

Just last year, California’s Proposition 37, which also would have required labeling for foods that are genetically modified, was defeated under similar circumstances. Corporations like Monsanto and Hershey contributed close to 44 million dollars to defeat the measure while supporters raised about $7 million.

However, recent reports that the “No on 522” campaign illegally contributed funds to their cause without disclosing where the money was coming from – namely Nestle, Pepsi and Coca Cola – have given me a new place to direct my dissatisfaction.

It’s the way that the Grocery Manufacturers Association went about their contributions that has gotten them into hot water. According to the Associated Press, our Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, filed a lawsuit against GMA accusing them of “soliciting and collecting about $7.2 million from members to be used to oppose I-522. The organization did not report those funds to the Public Disclosure Commission.”

So, what are the effects of this kind of funding, besides plaguing television viewers with nonstop ads? Closely related to the problem of GMA’s illegal financing activity, there is a huge concern about transparency.  It’s important for voters to know which corporations are funding certain ads. In this case, Washington state voters weren’t given much of that information until it was too late and votes were already cast.

The huge disparity between how much each side was able to raise should give individuals pause. When corporations are able to flood airwaves with ads that label an initiative as being too costly or confusing, the truth can get drowned out in the noise. If a company is able to convince voters that a certain measure will cost them even a single penny more, it’s likely that the measure will fail, whether or not that information is true.

Given the lack of financial resources, any Washingtonians seeking to put forth an initiative are at an extreme disadvantage. This problem is only amplified when an initiative gives consumers more power and information, since surely there will be corporations lining up to oppose it.

Although the push for GMO labeling failed here, it looks like Oregon will likely put forth a similar initiative sometime next year. Northwest Public Radio reports that Washington’s vote “is not stopping activists in Oregon…” and that Scott Bates of GMO Free Oregon “hopes to be collecting signatures soon in order to put the initiative before Oregon voters next fall.” I’m interested to see how Oregon voters will respond to the flood of negative advertising, and hope that any backers of this future initiative have been saving up.