Friday, May 7, 2010

Why the Indianapolis School Referenda Passed

At the Pike polling place I was at on Tuesday, one of the heaviest voting locations in the county, I ran into a number of older residents who were dead set against the Guion Creek school referendum. They were outraged not only at that project, but also administration plans to knock down and replace Eagle Creek and College Park elementary schools, two buildings barely 20 years old. The referendum though ended up passing 69-31.

I suspect you had as many people strongly opposed to the referendum as strongly supporting. Where the referendum was won is in the middle, the less informed, less passionate voter who went to the polls on Election Day without a strong opinion on the issue. Those voters are most susceptible to persuasion at the polls.

In that regard, the pro side, with its army of teachers and other education-types supporting it and working at the polls, had a clear advantage. When there is a large pool of potential voters out there, the side that is best organized is almost always going to be able to best target those undecided voters and swing them. In Pike, it seemed like every polling place was covered by at least one "Yes" volunteer pushing the referendum, often more. I was not aware of a single polling place where there was organized opposition to the referendum.

Another huge factor is the wording of the question. I know some people scoff at the notion that the wording of the Wishard or Pike referendum influenced the result. They instead claim that both sides simply won, or lost, based on how well they supported their respective sides and the wording didn't matter. That's nonsense. Unless all the voters arrived on Election Day fully informed about the referendum issue, which certainly didn't happen, the wording of the questions certainly does matter.

Take the Pike referendum question for example:
"Shall the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township, Marion County Indiana, issue bonds or enter into a lease to finance the Tax Neutral New Guion Creek Elementary School Project in order to create equity among our elementary students in the Century by providing our teachers with the tools needed to offer quality education to all of the children in our community, which is estimated to cost not more than $21,475,000 and is estimated to increase the property tax rate for debt service by $0.2375 per $100 of assessed value based on the assumption that the debt service fund tax rate would otherwise be $0.00?"
The language in bold wasn't necessary, but rather were phrases intentionally included by the Pike School Board to try to trigger a "yes" response from the less informed voter, those who goes to the polls and is for the first time presented with the issue and asked to make a decision.

The Wishard referendum written by Health and Hospital Corporation was even worse:

Shall the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, Indiana, issue bonds or enter into a lease to finance safe, efficient and functional facilities for the Wishard Hospital project: allow Wishard to provide access to care for all residents of Marion County, including people who are seniors, poor uninsured or vulnerable regardless of their ability to pay; and allow Wishard to provide specialized care, including to victims suffering from
traumatic injuries or severe burns; and allow Wishard to work with colleges and universities including Indiana University School of Medicine, Ivy Tech Community College, and the Purdue School of Pharmacy, to teach future doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals in Indiana?"

Any political scientist who studies polling will tell you the No. 1 bias in a poll is the wording of the question. It's easy to generate different poll results by changing words and placing into the question certain hot button words or phrases. Health & Hospital and the Pike Township School Board knew what they were doing when they constructed the questions the way they did. They were not trying to present the question honestly and objectively to the voters. They were trying to get a result they wanted.

Biased referenda language has gotten out of hand. We need elected officials to step forward and insist that the questions be written fairly and objectively and that those wanting the referenda to pass not be allowed to try to insert bias into presenting the question to the public. Ultimately we need the Indiana General Assembly to step in and take the writing of the question away from school boards and other local governmental entities and place the authority to write the question in the hands of some other entity, perhaps the Department of Local Government Finance or possibly delegate the responsibility to the courts. Clearly the current system is not working.


Unknown said...

I agree with you that is should be a neutral question, I would have still voted yes. My question to you is what kind of question do you think was posed to individuals when the "con" side was getting signatures to have it placed on the ballot? Just a thought.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Paul, I think the school folks have figured out that if they are going to conduct a referendum to do it during a primary or special election. The low turnout works to their advantage. All the school's employees, vendors and consultants show up to vote. That was very true in the Wishard referendum.

Had Enough Indy? said...

I agree whole heartedly with you about a fair and clear posing of the referendum question. I should think the DLGF could do this in their sleep - they review and edit the question anyway and cutting out all the feel-good nonsense would be a boon to the voter.

Unknown said...

I agree, both parts of the question had flaws in them. Michael there was not a con side at the time the signatures were gathered, I say this because I witnessed more than 220 of the 270 signatures. What was said to the residents was: “Were you aware that the MSD of Pike Township is planning on tearing down Guion Creek Elementary at a cost of $21 million”……. The typical response was “no”…then we went on “we are out gathering 125 signatures and if we do then it, the project, will be placed on the ballot as a public question, by signing this petition you are not saying that you are for the project nor are you against the project, but that you would like to be afforded the opportunity to cast a vote on the project after you find out more information, otherwise if we don’t gather the required signatures the project will go ahead without any further input from you.” Of the 270+/- signatures that we obtained 2 people did not sign it because they wanted more information, and another 2 people waved at us through their door! Signatures were gathered from neighborhoods all over Pike Township, from residents that were serviced by all of the elementary schools including Guion Creek Elementary! As I recall 2 of the mothers of students, who attend Guion, who signed the petition on or about January 10th had no knowledge of this project! One of them helps in her child’s class every Friday. So, no, we did not mislead anyone into signing something for the wrong reason. One other thing I might add is that of the 9 referenda that were on the ballot this past Tuesday only one was placed on the ballot by the voters the others were placed on the ballot by the taxing authority (school boards). While I did, and still do, believe that the building needs to be rebuilt, I thought that the way Superintendant Mr. Nate Jones handled this project was extremely neglectful. Neglectful of the students and the residents of Pike. While looking at the precinct numbers only 1 precinct voted against the project, while most of the others passed it 3-1.
Would I do this again, you bet. It got the community talking. It woke up the administration. And most of all it shows that the residents of Pike support their kids (present company excluded- had to poke Paul ).