Thinking big, we arrive at little questions

By Peter Callaghan
Published November 8th 2007 in The News Tribune

Now that the vote is in (and some of it has actually been counted) it’s time to answer the big question: What were the voters saying?

We require deep meaning. Some of us are even paid to search for it. Themes, we demand themes.

Please disregard the fact that it’s a silly quest toward an unknowable truth. More than a million voters made dozens of different decisions for thousands of different reasons. There might not be a consistent theme throughout any one voter’s ballot, let alone a common message sent by THE VOTERS.

Yet we must oversimplify the complex in order to feel that we understand. And officials, always in search of a contrived mandate to give cover to actions they were planning to take anyway, analyze results in a self-serving way.

Rarely does anyone speak against interest. Rarely does someone say something like, “We ran the wrong campaign on the wrong issues with the wrong people. In a word, we stunk.”

Were voters expressing an anti-tax sentiment, colored by the threat of declining home values? They trashed the roads and transit package and endorsed Initiative 960 to make it tougher to raise taxes. And they kept the 60 percent majority requirement on school levies.

Or were they saying the roads and transit package was too much and too expensive? Is it surprising they would grab the chance to make life difficult for the Legislature? And defeating the simple-majority school levy measure doesn’t mean they’ll stop approving school levies, so does that mean they’re anti-tax or just want to be asked to raise taxes?

That’s the problem with big answers to big questions. They lead to lots of little questions.

Were voters anti-establishment, slapping back at the bigs for assuming we trust them to spend many billions over decades? That’s the core of the Republican spin – that state and regional voters rejected the policies of those in control, especially Democrats and Gov. Chris Gregoire.

It’s a big boost for candidate Dino Rossi’s change campaign, they claim.

But maybe they were rejecting this roads and transit plan but might be willing to look at the next one, as they did when Sound Transit was approved on its second try. They might have been thinking more about their wallets than Rossi’s complaints about the governor.

Besides, they elected most incumbents and centrist candidates for most city councils and school boards. That’s hardly evidence of an anti-establishment mood.

How does the vote on Referendum 67 fit in? Which side represented the establishment in the high-priced battle between insurance companies and trial lawyers? Voters rebuffed the most expensive ballot measure campaign in state history, paid for by Big Insurance. But does that mean they’re suddenly in love with tort lawyers?

You pay your money, you take your spin.

Tim Eyman says the roads and transit measure failed because it included a motor vehicle excise tax. Environmentalists say it lost because it would increase global warming. Proponents say it lost because opponents confused voters with doubts about cost and benefit.

So that’s the theme then, that confused voters vote no? But that doesn’t explain how Pierce County voters expertly sifted through a batch of charter amendments, approving those that were beneficial or benign and killing several that did damage to instant-runoff voting.

These voters made sense out of the nonsense served up by the County Council, which suggests that they’ll do just fine next year when county offices are determined by the IRV method.

Maybe their votes – and all those statewide – reflected not a theme but individual choices about individual issues for individual reasons.

Not as satisfying as big, unifying messages, but perhaps more accurate.