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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Cooking the books, city election style

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 result 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 question for the results 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 – they don’t have to be things he supports because of the “if I told you” lead-in – the survey 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 last Monday for the November ballot. (An election is arguably just a big poll with a 0 percent margin of error.) The council added two advisory questions to the ballot. 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, some voters who don’t want higher taxes, ever, or fewer services, ever, will figure it makes sense to 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. Of course, someone might point out that those are the decisions they are elected to make, and they rarely ask the voters’ advice.

But what truly makes it “cooking the books” is the order of the questions the council is proposing. The “Bill of Rights” is a charter change, which is sort of the municipal version of a constitutional amendment, and arguably at the top of the legal hierarchy. Advisory questions, which the council can follow or ignore based on circumstances and its collective judgment, are several rungs down the ladder. But the council wants to put the advisory questions ahead of the charter change.

What if the Founding Fathers had asked if citizens of the new country whether 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 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 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.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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