There’s already a lot of analysis of Prop 1′s failure, but I think most is occurring in specific frames – social justice, transit planning, the economy. I agree some people make decisions about how to vote based on very specific concerns and interests, but for the most part, I think ballot measures are much more simple, and visceral, than we admit.
For most voters, I think these votes come down to two fundamental, linked questions, which I’m hearing echoed in a lot of the comments here as well: “How much will I get, and how much will I pay?”
The answer to what a voter gets can range from the focused, like a streetcar extension along a particular street – to the diffuse, like a list of projects all over town, or no list at all! The answer to how much they pay is similar: As focused as $60 per car once a year, and as diffuse as .05% on every purchase.
During a campaign, the side promoting a measure has to communicate the benefit to as many people as possible. The more focused and simple that benefit is, the cheaper it is to communicate – the slogan can be catchier (“Mass Transit Now!”), the explanation simpler (“A monorail from Ballard to West Seattle”). An interaction that leaves a voter with confidence in your project is shorter, meaning you can make more contacts in the same amount of volunteer time. Even less engaged voters will be exposed to your message, because a simpler message is more easily repeated.
A more diffuse package raises negatives – which are much more powerful than positives. If a measure has roads and transit, people who hate roads will vote against it as well as people who hate transit. People who hate bike lanes voted against Prop 1, people who hate streetcars, and people who hate buses. The more complex your package, the more likely you are to trigger someone angry about another project.
At the same time, the opposition’s job is to communicate the cost. The more focused, like an annual fee, the better for them – $60 per car is easy to communicate, because it’s the same message for everyone, and it’s easy for people to understand – there’s no math involved. It’s more difficult, and costly, for an opposition campaign to communicate a sliding scale or make people angry about a tiny increase on many, many transactions, simply because it takes more words, time, and even math to tell each voter about it. This is why we have a sales tax! It takes work for a voter to understand how much it costs them.
Prop 1 was basically terrible in this respect. “A $60 annual fee for a wide range of small, difficult to explain projects.” Compare that to “a 0.5% sales tax for 50 miles of light rail,” and I think you get the idea.
We can debate all day what percentage of voters cares about what particular value set, but this is economics. Everyone cares about how much bang they get for their buck, and little projects for big money doesn’t sound good. I editorialized in August that this package needed a signature project to make selling it easier, and while a streetcar might not have been enough to pass Prop 1, I believe the results would have been different. As for the funding mechanism – we need to take that fight to Olympia.