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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: Undervotes could have brought win to ballot losers

Spokane County’s effort to raise property taxes failed on Tuesday, but it could have won. John Smith could have beat Brian Dansel in Northeast Washington’s 7th Legislative District, Linda Thompson could have beat Rod Higgins for a seat on the Spokane Valley City Council and all three losers in the contested Liberty Lake council races could have been winners.

All of this could have happened without any special tricks to get more voters in key precincts to the polls. The votes were there, the campaigns just didn’t close the deal.

That’s the lesson in one of the most-ignored statistics out of any election: the undervotes. They are the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” stats of any election.

Undervotes are the races on the ballot a voter leaves blank. They are quite common in presidential elections, in which people get excited about the national campaign, register and vote for a Mitt Romney or a Barack Obama, then lose interest partway down the ballot.

They show up every election but were particularly interesting this year, which had no overarching campaign. (Sorry if this bursts any candidate’s bubble, but most people did not stake out their mailbox waiting for the ballot just so they could fill in a circle for you.)

Undervotes don’t show up in the vote totals or percentages reported on election night. But they are the reason why the number of yes and no votes for each of the state’s ballot measures adds to a different total.

The absence of undervotes shows that people are interested, maybe even passionate, about an issue or candidate. This year, the fewest undervotes were for Initiative 522, the genetically modified food labeling measure, which currently has less than 800 Spokane County voters skipping that measure while more than 115,000 weighed in.

By comparison, Spokane County Proposition 1, a tax increase to help clear out land around Fairchild Air Force Base, had nearly 5,000 blank ovals. It’s failing by about 2,700 votes as of Friday’s tally. And some of the largest numbers of undervotes are in precincts where Proposition 1 passed handily.

Smith is losing to Dansel by less than 2,200 votes in the five-county district, but some 2,700 voters in Spokane County alone picked neither. In several municipal races that are relatively close, the un-voted ballots are higher than the margin of victory for the winner.

Campaigns spend lots of time, energy and money trying to convince recalcitrant voters on the margins to cast ballots through what’s generally known as “get out the vote.” But clearly a smarter strategy in this and most elections is for candidates and ballot measures to concentrate on the voters who always vote. If you can make the case to them, victory can be as simple as filling in just one more oval.

New definition of victory

In elections, victory is usually well-defined. You got the most votes. Period.

So it was a bit odd Thursday to get a post-election email from initiative guru Tim Eyman describing the results of the election as “7 measures, 7 votes, 7 victories.”

I-517, the initiative on the initiative process which Eyman had helped shepherd to the ballot, failed by a big margin. So had the GMO labeling initiative, I-522. The five tax advisory measures, which were a result of a previous Eyman initiative, were split at two for repeal, two for maintain and one too close to call.

Eyman claimed victory because people got a chance to vote on these concepts, which is a metric that suggests every initiative, referendum, bond issue or tax package is a victory. “Letting the voters decide a few issues each year is a healthy, positive aspect of our state’s governmental system,” he wrote.

That may sound strange until one realizes Eyman makes his living by getting things on the ballot, so this is definitely his definition of victory. A reminder of that was near the bottom of the email, which contained what most of his emails do: a plea for money for him to continue his work.

Roundabout route

The U.S. Capitol Christmas tree, that Englemann spruce that was cut out near Usk about 10 days ago, made a stop by the state Capitol on Friday. It was nice opportunity for people in the Olympia area to see the tree and the huge tractor-trailer that is hauling it across the country.

One wonders if the agency arranging the travel bothered to look at the map. Or should we just not be surprised that something connected to a project for Congress would go from Usk to Washington, D.C., by way of Olympia?