Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Voters Swat Down Swimming Pool Tax

I’m gratified that 71% of my fellow citizens who chose to vote in North Ogden’s bond election yesterday agreed with me to defeat the bond initiative (see my previous post on this issue). Only 25.6% of registered voters turned out for the vote. Even that low participation rate is considered very high for a summertime bond election. Fewer than 12% of registered voters have turned out for other recent off season bond elections.

This Standard Examiner article reports that “members of the swim team, pool employees and city council members sat in stunned silence” when the results of the election were announced. Almost everyone on the political inside of this issue expected the initiative to pass. Almost all of these people were surprised that it didn’t. I was less surprised. Here’s why.

Part of the reason for supporters’ surprise is their reliance on the Dan Jones survey the city funded to discover the level of support for a bond initiative to cover the pool. My household was among those surveyed. The survey was poorly designed, in that it seemed skewed toward support of the bond and really included too little information to develop an informed opinion. The council relied on the survey’s 60% favorable result when it decided to hold the bond election. With a survey of this nature, you can never be sure how many respondents will actually vote.

When a special initiative election is held, only those that strongly care about the issue show up to vote. Only those that are polarized on the issue determine the result. But when an initiative is included on a general election ballot, those that care enough to vote on other matters, but are more ambivalent about the initiative, also vote; thus, generating a much broader based result. So the city council’s decision to hold a special summertime bond election pretty much guaranteed that only strong supporters and strong opponents of the bond would vote.

There is also what I call the proxy sentiment. In any election, there are some that assume that the impending outcome is obvious. If they agree with that supposed result they feel no obligation to vote, assuming that their neighbors will carry out their wishes for them. From their viewpoint, abstaining from voting is the same as voting yes. For that reason, many special initiative elections get only 11% of voters to turn out, with very few of them being opponents.

Yet another factor is cynicism. Those that disagree with an initiative are more prone to staying away if they believe the initiative will pass by a wide margin. They believe their vote won’t matter anyway, so they stay away. This explains the low turnout of dissenting votes in many initiative elections. But if the disagreement side has somewhat of a chance of winning, or of even making a statement, these people are less cynical about their vote and are more likely to turn out.

Both the proxy sentiment and cynicism factor played into this election. Supporters assumed the bond would easily pass, so they felt less compelled to turn out than opponents. As grassroots sentiment built against the bond, the cynicism factor decreased, bringing out opponents that otherwise might have stayed away.

Also, it was less than four years ago that voters overwhelmingly squelched a bond initiative to build a new pool. Many that were not opposed to the pool did not favor of bonding for it. The city later found other ways to fund the pool. It is a mystery as to why the city council thought another bond initiative related to the pool would pass now.

Dave Nordquist, the director of the city’s pool, blamed seniors and a last minute push by grassroots opponents for the bond initiative’s demise. Let’s look at each of these issues individually.

It is well known that people tend to become more politically active with age. In the run up to every general election there is a huge push to enroll young voters. But every election, young people vote in only small numbers. As people get more life experience and come to understand how policies affect their lives, they tend to become more involved in the process. This pretty much guarantees that in most elections, a higher percentage of older people than younger people will actually vote. That being said, Nordquist offers no empirical evidence for his "feeling." We don’t really know without combing the election files who actually voted. Although he doesn’t explicity say so, Nordquist comes across as whining about stingy old people.

The initiative’s proponents were foolish if they thought that no effective opposition to their campaign would be mounted. They were even more foolish if they assumed that opponents would refrain from heavy last-minute campaigning. The members of the city council are all seasoned politicians who have run election campaigns. They know how this stuff works. If they thought this election would be different, they shortchanged their position by failing to prepare for the inevitable backlash against the initiative.

Pool cover supporters now look very foolish. The pool cover committee had raised only a fraction of the funds needed from private donations, despite a lot of hard work. But they pretty much blew all of the donations by funding the special bond election. This will make fundraising much more difficult for the committee. Potential donors can see that when the going got tough, the committee irresponsibly squandered donations on a wild goose chase.

City council members may want to look at this in a broader light as well. They have recently passed some unpopular tax and fee increases. They have seemingly turned a blind eye to displeased residents and to suggestions for improving efficiencies. (Mind you, I am personally acquainted with and respect a number of city council members.) To some North Ogden residents, it seems like the council has been awfully loose fiscally. The council’s support of this bond was simply icing on the cake. Disgruntled residents finally had a forum to express their displeasure. So the council may profit from seeing this election result as a repudiation of their fiscal actions, because that’s how a fair number that voted against the bond see it.

When the bond initiative is considered from the perspective of the average North Ogden resident, it simply makes no fiscal sense. The cost of putting a cover on a six-lane lap pool was prohibitive, especially in light of how few would actually benefit. This should have been obvious to council members. The fact that the council is so out of touch with the community probably portends future re-election challenges for some members.

Separate from the election's issues is my experience with voting. This is not the first time we have voted on electronic voting machines. There was an election judge hovering around the voting booths ‘helping’ people to vote. I frankly found it annoying and invasive. I’m sure that some technologically challenged voters needed help. But the guy stood there and watched me vote. If my hand hesitated even a moment when a new screen popped up, he was right there telling me how to touch the touch screen. I’m certain he felt that he was performing a civic service, but I found his actions totally unacceptable. I will see if my city council members are sufficiently in touch to help resolve this issue in the future.

I’m grateful that Utah law requires voter approval of municipal bonds. I am also grateful that a number of people got actively involved in this issue and became informed. North Ogden residents will not have a year-round lap pool, but they will have a more fiscally responsible municipal government.

3 comments:

Andrea said...

This is not the first time Dan Jones predicted that a bond would pass but ended up failing.

1. Initiative 1 in 2004
2. Ogden School District bond a couple of years ago
3. North Ogden pool bond

My theory is that people (especially Utahns) tend to tell people what they want to hear and are more likely to tell people yes when they really mean no. It's our way of not offending people.

y-intercept said...

andrea,

I don't think it is just a matter of being polite.

When you are being surveyed, you feel like you are helping plan something. When you vote, you think about whether or not something is a good idea. The polling mechanism provides a different perspective; so it gets a different response.

Anyway, to save DL the effort. I feel sorry for all the poor recreation deprived kids up in Ogden. They will have to go to the Salomon Center mega recreation plex during the winter, rather than a publicly funded pool.

It is just so unfair. The private venture has to collect taxes; which means that it is a lot more expensive than the public works that gets to spend tax money.

Reach Upward said...

Polling is an inexact method for determining what will actually occur in a vote. It is a difficult process.

How do you go about ensuring a reasonable sample? If polling is done by mail, many people simply chuck the thing in the trash. If done by phone, many people don't answer. Regardless of the method used, it is very difficult to get a representative sample. How do you know what percent of the poll's respondents will actually turn out to vote?

As y-intercept notes, people think differently when responding to polls than they do when they vote. How does a pollster control for this?

Most polls are notoriously inaccurate. Pollsters love to tout the times when they have achieved a certain level of accuracy. But these occurences are often as much a fluke as when results differ substantially from the actual vote.

Polls are more valuable when done in a series in order to show trends in opinion. None of the polls in the series is guaranteed to accurately reflect reality, however, when the same methodology is applied time after time, each poll has about the same strengths and weaknesses. So there is a higher probablility that the trend noted tracks closer to the actual trend.

Doing a one-time survey on an issue, like the N.O. city council did, is a poor method of discovering reality. Conducting a single poll months prior to an actual vote also fails to control for inevitable changes in opinion as the issue becomes hotter and more information becomes available.