I-985: No, We Won't

Anti-transit Initiative 985 pitted substance against soundbites---and substance won in a landslide.

There’s a lot to write about today.  But I’ll save the grand speechifying, and point to one delightful election result on a ballot measure that we’ve been watching very closley.

Washington State’s Initiative I-985 had so many problems, it’s hard to know where to begin.  It was billed as a measure to fight traffic congestion, yet I-985 was drafted with absolutely no guidance from competent, knowledgeable transportation engineers.  As a result, it was an unmitigated mess.  For technical reasons I won’t get into here, I-985 would have increased traffic backups (pdf link) in many parts of the heavily congested Everett-Seattle-Tacoma corridor.  It also would have slowed down transit and carpools, by clogging Puget Sound’s HOV lanes with cars outside of narrowly-defined rush hours.  US officials said that I-985’s changes to carpool lane management would put tens of millions of dollars in federal transportation funding at risk.   And to pay for this dog’s breakfast, I-985 would have pushed the state budget deeper into the red, forcing cutbacks in schools and other top state priorities, while shifting nearly $200 million dollars from eastern Washington and small-town taxpayers to misguided road projects around greater Seattle.

But I-985 had one enormous and seemingly insurmountable advantage:  soundbites.  Nobody likes congestion. Nobody likes higher taxes. And I-985’s backer’s claimed that they were offering an irresistible combo meal:  congestion relief without higher taxes.  The facts said otherwise, of course.  But early polling suggested that the ballot measure’s seductive title—“The Reduce Traffic Congestion Act”—would carry I-985 with nearly 60 percent of the vote.  Grimmer still, the opposition formed late, and was badly outspent.  (Full disclosure:  Sightline officially opposed I-985, something we do only in rare instances, and when we’re very sure of our facts. And I even contributed some of my time to the campaign.)

So, what happened?  It did turn out to be a crushing rout, but not the rout that early polls suggested.  I-985 went down in flames, with nearly 60 percent of voters opposed.  Most surprisingly, the opposition was statewide:  I-985 was rejected in all but one county.

I-985 county vote map

This is a result that nobody—and I mean nobody—expected two months ago.  

I have no particular insight into what actually happened to turn the tide, but I suspect it’s this: Sometimes, substance really can beat soundbites.

The standard political campaign practice is to focus on one or two key messages, and repeat them ad nauseum until they finally sink into voter’s consciousness.  Campaign professionals learn to spin every turn of events, every new fact, into an opportunity to reinforce these core messages.

From my perch on the sidelines, it seemed that the No-on-985 effort did a bit of this.  But at the same time, I-985’s opponents also put an unusually large amount of time and effort into explaining—in detail, and to as many audiences as possible—what the initiative actually did.  This part of the campaign wasn’t narrow or driven by a few soundbites, but by some fairly exhaustive analysis of transportation engineering and fiscal policy. Some of this work was highway-by-highway, town-by-town—figuring out how many red light enforcement cameras each city stood to lose, say, or how I-985’s management changes would affect a particular stretch of road. 

Spokane Spokesman-Review I-985 headlineThe result of all this work was an overwhelming tide of bad press for I-985, all across the state. The Seattle Times and The Spokane Spokesman-Reviewboth ran front page, above the fold headlines on the problems of I-985. The stories were generally fair, I thought, and gave I-985’s supporters their say.  But the substance was so clear that there was no way the initiative could look good.

Seattle Times I-985 headlineAlso as a result of all this substantive work, the list of opposing organizations—including everyone from major business groups to labor unions to educators to environmentalists—was both broad and deep.  Just so, the editorial board opposition was nearly unanimous.  Three major papers—the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle Times, and Tacoma News Tribune– took the time to run more than one editorial opposing I-985.  The P-I ran a total of nine editorials opposing I-985—all on different subjects!  And the most recent Seattle Times editorial listed 10 very different reasons why voters should reject I-985.

In the end, it wasn’t a battle of soundbite vs. soundbite.  It was soundbite vs. substance.  And substance won in a landslide.

There may not be a transferrable lesson here.  I-985 was sui generis:  it was supremely terrible public policy.  Not all ballot initiatives are that bad.  Still it’s good to know that, when voters have a chance to pit substance against soundbites, sometimes they’ll side with the substance.

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