I am used to being a contrarian when it comes to elections. That is, I frequently find myself in disagreement with the majority of voters. I often think they’re wrong. And they clearly often think that I’m wrong. That’s OK. That’s how elections are supposed to work.
I actually did get matched up with the majority on exactly one of the items on yesterday’s ballot. The one guy whose sign I had in my front yard was elected to my city council. Still, only about 38% of registered voters in my city bothered to vote. And that was considered an extremely high turnout. Turnout would undoubtedly have been much less had not the controversial voucher referendum been on the ballot.
In Weber County, where I live, voters may have narrowly approved a sales tax increase (50.36%-49.64%, a margin of 281 votes out of 39,295). But as of this morning, three precincts were still outstanding and there are yet absentee ballots to be counted. So we’ll have to keep an eye on this one.
School vouchers went down big time. With 96.64% of precincts counted, the spread was 62.19% against to 36.81% in favor. This SL-Trib article reports that Patrick Byrne, the principle funder of the pro-voucher side, issued a sour grapes whine that the referendum was “a "statewide IQ test" that Utahns failed.” Note to Mr. Byrne: Calling the people whose support you need to further your cause stupid is probably a good way to reduce support even further. The many Utahns that voted against vouchers are certainly feeling vindicated as they are hearing Mr. Byrne’s sound bite today.
The Trib article also quotes state School Board Chairman Kim Burningham as saying, “We believe this sends a clear message. It sends a message that Utahns believe in, and support, public schools.” This belief is a fine example of a logical fallacy. The vote may indeed mean what Mr. Burningham suggests. However, it may also mean that, despite the fact that people think our education system stinks, they disagree that vouchers are the best way to remedy the situation.
However, one thing is now abundantly clear. The UEA has functionally demonstrated that it is the most powerful political entity in Utah. The UEA and its fellow travelers pulled out all the stops on killing the voucher law passed by the legislature earlier this year, and they won — big time. The UEA will come into the 2008 legislative season with more political power than it has ever had.
Expect to see the governor and the legislature led around like cattle. Oh, not every legislator will kowtow to the UEA, but I would be very surprised if the overall legislature didn’t act like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the UEA. This does not bode well for Utah’s school children or for Utahn’s in general. As Rep. John Dougall (R-AF) reports in this post, the UEA “opposes improving academic achievement.” Its practice is to stonewall and ignore when ideas are solicited for ways to improve, because the UEA is invested in the status quo.
Rep. Dougall writes, “To talk about improvement would require an openness to admit that some things can be done better. It would require a discussion about change and the UEA opposes change.” He says that “the UEA takes the approach that if you are not with them 100% of the time, then you are against them.”
Regardless of whether voters rejected vouchers because they believe the solution was flawed or because they are anesthetized into thinking that Utah’s schools are fantastic, the result is that the UEA will be even less incentivized to be part of the solution to Utah’s education problems.
Another lesson is pointed out by LaVarr Webb (here). He says that voucher proponents lost vital ground early in the campaign when they allowed “the education establishment [to] successfully fram[e] the debate as pro-public school vs. anti-public school.” Webb says, “An important political lesson here is to never allow your opponent to define you early in a campaign.”
Jesse Harris discusses a number of other flaws with the pro-voucher campaign in this post. The problems, he says, began with the legislative process. Years of compromise amounted to only minor tweaking. The result of the narrowly-passed bill was a law that was easy to demagogue. This process has unwittingly empowered the UEA; the very establishment voucher supporters sought to diminish.
We are a society awash in polls. Most polls don’t really change things. But elections have impact and meaning. They actually change things. For better or worse, yesterday’s election will change the dynamics of Utah politics.