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Spokane

Council’s tactic inspires skepticism, not democracy

Sun., Aug. 9, 2009

Whether they realize it or not, the Spokane City Council is asking to cook the books on the Community Bill of Rights charter amendment and skew the results of the November vote. They’re using a strategy campaigns sometimes use to get the outcome they want.

This newspaper’s longtime pollster Del Ali cautioned us years ago that one can skew the results of a poll not just by what’s asked, but by the order of the questions. It’s advice we still use to evaluate polls before reporting them.

One of the oldest tricks is to put the main question after several other loaded questions. For example, if you were a challenger trying to show your incumbent senator is not well supported by the constituents, you wouldn’t just ask “Overall, do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Sen. Sneed?”

Instead, you’d first ask something like, “Would it change your opinion of Sen. Sneed if I told you he supports turning Glacier National Park into a nuclear waste dump?” or “Would it change your opinion of Sen. Sneed if I told you he supports tripling your income tax rate and spending it on more federal agents to take away your guns?”

After giving Sen. Sneed several nasty jabs, the pollster asks if the voter’s opinion is favorable or unfavorable. Sneed’s favorable rating goes way down, and the challenger’s campaign staff claims those numbers prove he’s vulnerable.

This is, for all practical purposes, what the City Council voted to do Monday for the November ballot. The council decided to ask voters two advisory questions. Reduced to their simplest, the questions are “Should we raise taxes to pay for the Envision Spokane Bill of Rights?” and “Should we cut services to pay for it?”

Faced with those options, voters who don’t want higher taxes, ever, or fewer services, ever, will vote no on the charter change.

If the council truly wanted to know the public’s feeling on the amendment, it could hold a straight up-or-down vote and members could argue during the coming months that they thought this will lead to the city raising taxes or cutting services.

What truly makes it “cooking the books” is the order of the questions the council is proposing. The “Bill of Rights” is a change to the city charter, sort of the municipal version of a constitutional amendment, and arguably at the top of the legal hierarchy. Advisory questions, which the council is free to follow or ignore, are several rungs down the ladder. But the council voted to ask citizens the advisory questions before having them vote on the charter change.

It might be akin to asking citizens if they wanted to pay more taxes to guarantee all this free speech, press and assembly, or what services they’d want to give up to make sure guilty people got a fair trial.

Voters aren’t stupid, but they can be manipulated over the short term. By bumping the advisory questions ahead of the charter change, council members may find it easier to get what they want – which, as they’ve made pretty clear, is for the amendment to fail.

But here’s the problem with cooking the books, as any pollster will tell you: You can get the result you want. You just won’t know if the result is valid.

Spin Control is a weekly political column that also appears at www.spokesman.com/blogs/ spincontrol with daily posts, videos and reader comments. This week’s hottest topic for reader comments was the Spokane Park Board’s consideration of the Mobius contract.


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