Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The state of Alaska is going to waste $1.2 million on April 3 to hold a referendum asking voters their opinion on domestic partner benefits for public employees in same-sex relationships.
I don't call this vote a waste because of the subject (a perfectly reasonable topic for debate). Nor do I necessarily object because, in a representative democracy, elected officials should make tough decisions without running back to the public for reassurance (although generally they should).
Rather, what's wrong with the Alaska vote is that it's merely advisory. Advisory elections have been obsolete since George Gallup popularized the scientific public opinion poll 70 years ago, but governments don't seem to have noticed.
A poll can tell you what the public thinks for a few thousand dollars, so why spend hundreds of thousands on a referendum? Sure, polls occasionally err in measuring public sentiment, but in that regard they're no different from an election (think voter fraud, computer errors and hanging chads).
Polls are actually better measures of public opinion than traditional votes in at least one key way. Earlier this month, Seattle spent $1 million on a non-binding referendum on how it should replace its crumbling viaduct. Voters were only given two options -- a new viaduct or a tunnel -- and rejected them both. With that result, the Seattle public's views on what should happen were clearly murky.
Contrast that with a poll on the viaduct controversy a few days later that asked nineteen questions instead of two. Asking a representative sample of 770 people to give their thoughts in depth, as the polling firm did, is a lot easier than soliciting nuanced responses from every Seattle voter through a cumbersome ballot. A local television station paid for that poll, but why couldn't have the city of Seattle?
One of the survey's findings: 54% of Seattle voters thought the referendum on the viaduct wasn't worthwhile.
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.