Washington voters support legal abortion while rejecting term limits and aid in dying on November 5, 1991.

  • By Cassandra Tate and Kit Oldham
  • Posted 7/02/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7824
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On November 5, 1991, Washington voters narrowly approve Initiative 120, the Reproductive Privacy Act, codifying the tenets of the United States Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision in state law and providing abortion funding for low-income women. Voters also approve Referendum 42, funding a statewide 911 emergency telephone system, but reject six other ballot measures, including ones that would have imposed legislative term limits and legalized "aid in dying" for the terminally ill. In King County, Charter amendments to merge the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Metro) into County government win by narrow overall majorities but fail to muster the separate majority outside of Seattle required by state law to alter the agency.


Sponsored by the Pro-Choice Washington Coalition, Initiative 120 went to the Legislature with more than 242,000 signatures, at that time the most ever gathered in a legislative petition drive. In contrast to Referendum 20, a 1970 measure that liberalized the abortion law but did not directly address the issue of women's rights, Initiative 120 unequivocally declared, "The state may not deny or interfere with a woman's right to choose to have an abortion prior to viability of the fetus, or to protect her life or health." The measure also provided that the state pay for voluntary abortions for women who would be eligible for state-funded maternity services. When all the absentee ballots were counted and an automatic recount was completed, Initiative 120 passed by a thin margin of 4,222 votes, out of 1,509,402 cast.

Initiative 119, which would have allowed terminally ill adults to "request and receive from a physician aid-in-dying," and Initiative 553, imposing term limits on Washington's governor, lieutenant governor, legislators, and members of Congress, were both defeated by substantial margins. (Another term limits measure, I-573, passed the following year, but was overturned by the courts without taking effect.)

Metro Merger

The proposal to merge Metro into King County was prompted by a 1990 federal court ruling. Metro was created in 1958 to create a regional water quality system. Voters broadened its mission to include a county-wide bus system in 1972. In response to a citizen suit, U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer (1929-2002) ruled on September 6, 1990, that Metro's governing Council failed to meet the constitutional standard of "one person, one vote." (Under the agency's federated structure, some Metro Council members effectively represented many more people than others.) He gave local officials until April 3, 1992, to find a remedy, or he would mandate his own reforms.

The ruling triggered a long and fractious round of negotiations between County, Seattle, and suburban officials. A deal was cut in late 1991, but municipal officials balked when the King County Council canceled an integral referendum on its own partisan elections. Over municipal protests, the County Council placed the proposed Charter amendments on the November 5, 1991, ballot.

The amendments eked out narrow overall majorities, but the merger failed to muster the required majority outside of Seattle. (The State law which created Metro in 1958 required "dual majorities" inside Seattle and in the rest of the County for approval of any modifications to the agency's mission or organization.) Judge Dwyer extended his deadline to April 1993 and a new round of negotiations followed. This resulted in minor tweaks to the original package, which prevailed on November 3, 1992.

Local Offices

Democrats regained the 5 to 4 majority on the King County Council that they had lost two years earlier. Democratic State Representative Larry Phillips (b. 1956) defeated former television reporter Jeff Burnside to win the seat previously held by Republican Lois North, who stepped down after three terms. The three incumbent council members on the ballot were re-elected easily: Republican Bruce Laing had no opposition and Democrats Cynthia Sullivan and Greg Nickels (b. 1955) won by wide margins.

In the race for County Assessor, Republican Bruce Holland defeated Democrat Bob Rosenberger in a close race decided by absentee ballots. Holland died unexpectedly after three months in office and the County Council appointed Seattle City Comptroller Norward Brooks to replace him. In the November 1992 election, Democrat Scott Noble defeated Brooks to win the remainder of Holland's term.

In Seattle, the lengthy political career of City Councillor Sam Smith (1922-1995), who became the first African American on the Council in 1967 after serving in the state legislature, ended as he lost his seat to Sherry Harris (also African American), a 35-year-old engineer and political unknown. Two other newcomers also joined the City Council as Margaret Pageler and Martha Choe won races for the seats opened when longtime councilmembers Paul Kraabel and Dolores Sibonga chose not to seek re-election.


"Election Results Search (November 1991 General)," Washington Secretary of State website accessed June 23, 2006 (http://www.secstate.wa.gov/elections/results_search.aspx); 1992 Wash. Laws, Ch. 1 (Initiative Measure No. 120, "Reproductive Privacy Act"); Marilyn Knight, "Abortion in Washington State," Planned Parenthood of Western Washington website (www.ppfa.org); Walt Crowley, Routes: An Interpretative History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: Metro Transit, 1993); Bob Lane, Better Than Promised: An Informal History of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: King County Department of Metropolitan Services, 1995); "Councilman Smith's Defeat Ends An Era In Seattle," The Seattle Times, November 6, 1991 (http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com); Bob Lane, "Phillips' Victory Puts Democrats In Charge -- Easy Re-Election For 3 Incumbents," Ibid.; Lane, "King Co. Assessor -- Grass-Roots Effort Grows Into Victory For Newcomer Noble -- Democrat Defeats Appointee Brooks," November 4, 1992, Ibid; Greg Nickels, "History of King County Council: Elections and Membership," typescript dated "2005 update," in possession of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.
Note: This essay was greatly expanded on July 2, 2006, and incorporates two smaller essays no longer extant.

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