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Vestal: Sometimes indecision is ignorance in disguise

The Sasquatch of politics has come and gone again.

And we’re left to consider whether the Undecided Voter really exists, and if so, what natural phenomena provide an explanation.

The Undecided Voter is the mystery of every campaign: a crunch underfoot, a flash of hairy, inexplicable brown fur in the trees, a little snag in the peripheral vision and there one is – still not sure whether to go with Murray or Rossi, still answering “Don’t Know,” “Not Sure,” “Can’t Tell,” “Won’t Say.”

The Washington Poll, conducted in the final two weeks of the election season, found plenty of evidence of the Bigfoot. Though the number of people outright “undecided” in Murray-Rossi was just 6 percent, the percentage who expressed some level of indecision – leaning one way, could change – was 12.

Because it’s so hard to pick between those two.

The poll of registered voters, with a margin of error of 4.3 percent, also found that 14 percent didn’t know whether the state was headed in the wrong or right direction. Ten percent weren’t sure whether they’d vote for the Republican or Democrat in their local race for Congress. Thirteen percent had never heard of the state’s attorney general.

Who are these mysterious creatures, with such fluid views? Are they myth or hoax, ignorant or thoughtful, honest or cagey?

I can’t believe that Don’t Know doesn’t translate, on some level, to Don’t Care, which is annoying in someone who plans to cast a vote anyway.

But John Gastil suggests I shouldn’t be so hasty. Gastil, a professor of communications at the University of Washington who studies public participation in elections, says uncertainty isn’t such a crisis. More troubling is all our unearned, unfactual certainty.

“In some ways, admitting ignorance is at least a sign of humility,” he said.

He notes that about a third of voters consider themselves independents. They operate outside the political system, don’t accept party platforms or affiliations, are skeptical of ads and the media – in short, they are not served by a system or source of information they consider credible.

“How could they possibly be undecided? Well, how could they possibly be decided?” he said. “They don’t have a party.”

Meanwhile, the rest of us march around in the bright light of day, comfortably certain that what we believe is correct. A lot of times, it isn’t. And the more certain we are of our positions, the more likely we are to believe incorrect information, he said.

A lot of people still believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks – if you supported the people who brought us that war, you were more likely to believe it even after evidence to the contrary emerged. A lot of people believe the number of uninsured Americans is greater than it really is – fans of health care reform were more likely to fit that bill, he said.

Matt Barreto, a UW political science prof who runs the Washington Poll, said there is actually more indecision, or “soft attitudes,” among the public than polls show. When a pollster calls, some people don’t want to admit to no opinion, so they jump this way or that. On the other hand, some of the so-called undecided are just reluctant to share their views.

Either way, Barreto and Gastil say that broadly speaking, our level of political certainty outstrips our actual political knowledge.

“I am never astounded at the low level of political knowledge we find when we do our political knowledge batteries,” Barreto said. “I bet 40 percent of the public knows who John Roberts is.”

He noted one result from his poll: Six percent were unsure about the income-tax initiative. But four times that figure said they had paid slight or no attention to the issue.

Gastil studies initiatives and public participation. In 2006, he co-authored a Seattle Times Op-Ed piece arguing that many people voting for the initiatives in that election didn’t know the facts – and that their mistakes were conveniently aligned with their opinions. He pointed to polling that showed that people on both sides tended to hold mistaken beliefs about the “facts” that supported their view.

We like our facts to behave, and we tend not to notice when they don’t.

Gastil is studying an experiment in Oregon designed to punch through the wall of paid-for campaign BS. A panel of diverse, average citizens was convened to review, investigate and file short, reader-friendly reports about initiatives as a supplement to the Voters Guide. The cost was borne by a nonprofit group.

We’ll see how that goes. Whether it reaches deep into the woods, where shadowy figures Don’t Know. Gastil is hopeful that it will show a way to return part of the process to citizens, unmediated by parties, the press and the big money that’s used to obfuscate, not enlighten. Some might say it’s unneeded – that the current system gives voters enough cues, if not actual information, to choose.

“I would argue that’s absolutely not enough,” Gastil said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or

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