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Drawing positives from a double negative

Alaskan Way viaduct
Alaskan Way viaduct/City of Seattle

Some of the wiser observers saw this prospect coming, the double-no vote that materialized on the Alaskan Way viaduct issue. The city’s construct of the ballot – allowing voters to consider the proposed viaduct tunnel or elevated rebuild options and approve or reject either or both – allowed for several unreadable results. If voters approved one and other rejected the other, fine; but what if they approved or (as actually happened) rejected both? What should be read from that?

The Seattle debate over that interpretation having gone on unabated for approaching three weeks now, we thought we’d take a swing at it.

There is at least a patch of common ground on which to start. Only about 29% of Seattle’s voters voted in favor of the tunnel option, which means about 66% voted no on it. That seems a clear rejection of that concept at least.

The argument focuses on the 41% yes, 55% no vote on the proposal to rebuild the elevated highway, and the way it compares to the tunnel vote.

Sound Politics’ Stefan Sharkansky is a good example of one perspective: The elevated was the most popular alternative available. “There’s absolutely no basis to claim a ‘NO-NO’ victory. The Viaduct has the strongest claim as the most popular choice. Those who misread the voters’ statement as an endorsement of surface-gridlock do so at their own political peril.”

For one thing, he notes (implicitly at least), the third option – to move the viaduct to ground level and build there – wasn’t on the ballot. He then tries to work out how many voters specifically voted “no-no”, supporting neither option, and figures that at a small number – most likely, he suggests, 21.4%. (The math here gets pretty intense.)

And he relies too a bit on the precinct maps developed by the Seattle Times and Post Intelligencer, which do seem to show that the geographic areas of greatest support for the elevated (the far south, West Seattle, and the northwest) are also the areas of least support for the tunnel. And the one area where the tunnel did relatively well, the downtown and central-east area, was the area of weakest support for the elevated. Suppose, in other words, that only an up-or-down vote on the elevated had been on the ballot: Might it have gotten enough central-city support to pass?

An intriguing notion. But in fact people had the option to vote for both, and some doubtless did – Sharkansky acknowledges there’s no way to know how many did – and the central city opted to vote against the elevated. And just as there’s no way to know clearly how many voted “yes-yes,” so the number of “no-no” voters is uncertain. They could be as many, in the aggregate.

The contrary point of view is that a large number of voters – some indeterminate but large number – favors the surface option, and a number of Seattle-area politicians have seemed to be moving in that direction.

Maybe. But again, the statistical questions start chasing their own tails: To what extent, for example, is a surface build the second choice for tunnel or elevated advocates?

Then there’s this: David Goldstein at Horse’s Ass seems to be arguing that a lot of Seattle people would most like to see serious expansion of public transit (which could be true, but still seems off the issue).

There’s this comment to Sharkansky’s analysis: “I voted NO-NO: No to big megalomania and no to lesser megalomania. I meant yes only to taxpayers.”

A middle option to reviewing the vote was suggested by Mark Wainwright, president of the Admiral Neighborhood Association – in the west Seattle area that was strongest in favor of the elevated – who told the Seattle Times, “People want to put the same thing up there because anything new is different, and people are concerned because it would be different.”

You can see where this is headed: The Seattle ballot was so abominably put together that you can’t draw any solid conclusions from it, because so many interpretations are possible, or at least plausible. How many would rather turn the central city waterfront into a waterfront park? (This is Seattle; there must be some.) How many people opposing both options may simply not be convinced that the viaduct has to be fixed/replaced/demolished?

On second thought, hold that last for a moment. Although we don’t know exactly how many yes-yes voters there were, it does seem likely that the number of people who voted for the elevated, voted for the tunnel, or for both, amounted to a majority. That’s a majority in favor of a fix of some kind. In the weeks leading up to the vote, the tenor of public discussion leaned heavily toward the elevated as the “realistic” option and the tunnel as “unrealistic.” The central city, which leans toward idealism, went one way, while all the grittier parts of the city went for realism. Not hard to understand . . . but both wanted something done.

Okay, that may be a little simplistic too. But it does suggest a path toward resolution: If a single fresh, credible option were put to voters, there’s a fair chance they’d go for it. But political people would be well advised to work out what they think – seriously think – that should be, before putting the question. And to not expect voters to settle their sandbox disputes for them, next time.

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