King County voters sent a clear message on April 22 when they voted down Proposition 1. Jumping to conclusions about what that message was though would be both a mistake and a missed opportunity for Proposition 1 supporters.
Elections come down to a simple yes or no. There are no other options on a ballot. That makes them binary — quantitative insight on voter opinion, but lacking any shade of qualitative reasoning regarding the issue at hand.
On Proposition 1, voters gave an honest answer to the question leaders put before them: Will you buy this proposition? “No,” they said.
They didn’t say no to transit. They didn’t say no to civic responsibility. And they didn’t say no to progress, additional taxes or transportation choices.
Most importantly, voters did not say yes to cutting bus service.
Why did Proposition 1 fail? There are two options: Either voters found the proposal flawed or the campaign itself was flawed. Or both. Luckily, both can be fixed.
In my experience, successful tax votes are aspirational and not based on fear or peril. Successful campaigns focus on how our choice at the ballot will move ourselves, and the community we all love, forward. They do not focus on consequences of failure, as the Proposition 1 proponents seemed to do.
So we shouldn’t be shocked that Proposition 1 failed even though the campaign outspent opponents 100 to 1. But we should be shocked that so many of us are now throwing up our hands. Or worse, blaming voters outside of Seattle.
It is not uncommon for voters to say no to a proposition. Think back to the 1995 Sound Transit Ballot Measure, which failed with just 46.5 percent of the vote countywide even though 82 percent of Seattle residents voted to pass it.
Rather than throw up their hands, proponents of Sound Transit — including Bob Watt, head of the Seattle Chamber, and Bob Drewell, president of Sound Transit’s board — reached out to elected and community leaders who been opposed to the 1995 plan. That outreach resulted in a retooling of the plan to reflect legitimate concerns from those who had been opposed.
The second campaign for Sound Transit was also revamped. Instead of focusing on what would happen if the proposal failed, it focused on the future and addressed the questions on voters’ minds. Questions like the number of vehicle trips that would be taken out of the traffic system, and how effective light rail could be.
As a result of these changes, when voters were asked to approve a Sound Transit Ballot Measure in 1996 — just 18 months after the original vote — it passed with 56.5 percent of the vote, despite a 10 percent drop in support from Seattle voters. The second campaign, with its outreach and aspirational tone, had turned the tables everywhere else.
As our region continues to confront the problem of growth, think of where we would be if we had thrown in the towel back in 1995 and pointed fingers at the suburbs. Think of how that would have affected growth in our region, how much of a setback our transportation goals would have faced.
The answer to creating sustainable funding for Metro service isn’t found in creating a moat around Seattle and leaving the rest of King County to fend for itself. By listening to the concerns of voters across the region and putting forth a campaign that reflects aspirations they can relate to, we can find a funding solution that works for the entire region.
Now is not the time for finger-pointing, or for Seattle voters to throw in the towel and circle the wagons. Let’s all learn from the failure of Proposition 1 and, like the Sound Transit Ballot Measures, work together on a proposal that truly makes sense to voters.