Sunday, July 31, 2005

On Understanding the Referendum--or Not

It's hard not to get weary...at two weeks out from a referendum that opens a new door to building modern network infrastructure; a referendum that very few outside of (and not a few inside) Lafayette thought could never be won by the city the banner headline at the top of the Sunday newspaper is: "Vote: 12 of 85 precincts shun fiber." Not "Enormous win for city and LUS" Not, "Every council district votes, decisively, for fiber initiative" nor "Lafayette puts itself at the head of the class" not even the unsexy but more informative: "Most unifying election in a decade" but instead a headline that trumpets the closest thing to a negative outcome that, after extensive rooting about, one could come up with.

Get real.

The strongest story that could be told about this election is almost the polar opposite of the one: that this was the least divisive election in a long time. That Lafayette, for all the attempts to divide us, did come together. Ideology, income, cultural allegiance, geography, race, and petty politics all played a smaller role (not no role, a smaller role) than we have grown used to. One irony is that this story is almost entirely written out of the data and analysis of Lafayette Coming Together (LCT) principal Don Bertrand and is drawn off his site at Fibre 911. The Advertiser, by and large, only adds interviews. The analysis is a retrospective that the pro-fiber campaign workers from LCT are putting together to try and understand where the least strong areas of support in the population are in order to further build up support in those areas. And the least strong aspect has to be clearly understood--this is an analysis that focuses on council districts (not precincts) it has to be noted that NO council district came in under 8 points profiber. And 8 points in American politics is an overwhelming win. To repeat: every council district voted overwhelmingly for fiber. Don's analytical framework is not new, though his application of it to this situation is insightful: tepid support by African-American councilmen and too many community leaders depressed turnout and low turnout in that area followed the pattern anticipated for low turn out areas for all of the city: it led to a magnification of the "No" vote. There is a core of naysayers on any vote that involves change or (can be represented as being about) taxes. The trick is to make sure as many of the voters representing the overall sentiment of the city turn out as is possible. This focus on turnout as the crucial factor is hardly a secret as LCT, LCG, and LUS all made repeated statements about the importance of turnout and spent most of their efforts in the final weeks to ensuring participation. (The LCT run phone banking effort was aimed at this as was the final LCT flyer and the preponderance of LCTs final week's radio campaign. The public statements of both Durel and Huval during this period also emphasized that turnout was the single most significant factor.)

First, a little perspective: the number of precincts voting "NO" is a small number--12 of 86 boxes, about 14% of the total. But that sounds like there are are at least some smallish chunks of the city that voted no. But even that is misleading. Of those that voted only about 7% voted in precincts that voted no. The boxes that voted no were either partial boxes (only a few voters eligible to vote in city elections-much of the precinct actually being outside the city) or had small turnout, or both. That's actually pretty near universal support or as nearly so as our system ever produces. I challenge folks to find a less geographically segmented vote in our city's recent history. Or where there is less spread between the results of the strongest pro and and strongest anti boxes.There was far, far less evidence of the real divisions in this community than in any other vote I could name. Reflect briefly on recent presidential and mayor-president elections. This was a unifying election by almost any standard. And its disappointing to see it portrayed otherwise in the daily. This is another case when a little historical perspective is in order.

Let's look at the fuller, district-level analysis of which the precinct figures quoted in the Advertiser are a part. Here's the analysis in a nutshell: low turnout is bad for the pro-fiber vote, so raising turnout is a key issue.

For all districts the belief was that a low turnout would tend to lower profiber vote; as already mentioned that was a widely shared assumption based on the history of past elections. This is particularly true in elections where there is financial issues or a significant element of fear-based campaigning. The default vote is for "no change." So the question was the "No" vote attributable to low turnout.

One possible way of thinking about how to push up turnout, as well as win votes is to go to the district and neighborhood leadership and organizations. Certianly that was done all over the city and quite effectively by the administration. But the question of the utility of council members in the two predominately black districts of town played out differently from those representing the white districts. It is worth noting that NO councilman played a very visible role. Some did not even attend the town hall meeting in their districts. For some there was consistent but quiet support, from others essentially silence. My guess is that this was deliberate and tactical. The chief emotional opposition to LUS was the idea it was "government." And, for those who found that argument salient, the council--especially in light of recent shenanigans--represented everything that was distasteful. LUS, as a solid, apolitical utility company did not benefit from association with the council.

Overall that was a tactic that seemed to have worked. The LUS proposal was mostly free of entanglement in council politics. But it failed in the black community. While the African-American community distrusts the council no less, and perhaps more, than the other segments it also relies on its elected leadership to interpret the opaque workings of city hall. They expect good advice; that's part of the leader's job. And the same silence that probably helped elsewhere was taken as ambivalence in the black community. As nearly as I can tell that ambivalence on the part of Benjamen and Williams was real. The realized the benefit but wanted more explicit commitments. It showed in their support and the ambivalence led to a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the plan in the community that will probably benefit most. That lack of enthusiasm let to low turnout. And that low turnout emphasized the residual "anti" vote.

It's not at all clear that low turnout/low "yes" areas have a different proportion of hopeful and fearful citizens than any other part of town. What is clear is that they are less excited by and less engaged by the possibility either way and that the proportions of no votes actually cast was higher at least in part for that reason. Most of the No vote boxes fall into this pattern.

The lesson? Leadership counts in the black community. And the lack of enthusiasm among the elected leadership depressed the vote in those areas. And low turnout skewed the vote toward the negative range.


Just for the record, there is a separate situation that probably reinforces the results of council-based "least strong" areas outlined above. An entirely different set of factors depressed turnout and percentages in the last 48-72 hours from that which the campaign was anticipating based on initial phone data. We currently attribute that drop, estimated at about 10 points, to the last minute disinformation campaign, especially the 2 pieces of direct mail, black radio appearances, and negative automated dialing. That story is, almost surely, more newsworthy. It's implications have a national reach, it was murkily financed, and it's got the high drama of attempting to evoke a sudden change with a last minute, below the radar, punch. Yet nothing of this last minute campaign has been mentioned in the local media. (An Advocate retrospective did mention direct mail) What is surely the most exciting (and arguably the most important) story of the referendum election has gone unreported. And instead of that or any real retrospective that would try to explain the campaign's surprising outcome we get this: "12 out of 85 precincts shun fiber." I'll be very glad when, tomorrow, we get some real editorial guidance for the local daily newspaper.

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