Voters want to vote (for a downtown arena)

“Players wanna play, Ballers wanna ball, Rollers wanna roll …” and voters want to vote.

As the Field Poll (California’s long running, highly reputable independent polling service) said of Californians, “Voters also think that the voting public rather than their elected representatives ‘can be trusted more often to do what is right on important government issues’ (63% to 24%) and ‘are better suited to decide upon large-scale government programs and projects’ (57% to 33%).”

In this context, it should come as no surprise that a new poll released by Tab Communications that showed nearly 80% of Sacramento voters would like to vote on the arena plan. (Tab Communications is a conservative political consulting firm.) Tab Berg, Its principle was drawn into a small twitter war with the Mayor’s spokesman, Steve Maviglio over Tab’s perceived biases. Or, as Maviglio put it, “Note @ryan_lillis @dakasler the poll is promoted by pro-referendum consultant @tabberg #notexactlyGallup.” Berg previously editorialized in the Bee in favor of a referendum and lists one of his clients as ‘Stop the Arena Tax’, so it is likely fair to assume he has a point of view, which he does not dispute, “stevenmaviglio @Ryan_Lillis @dakasler Its been fully disclosed every time – does having an opinion preclude you from being objective.”

What I find more interesting is that a small plurality, although within the polls rather large margin of error, appear to support the arena. Previous private polls that I have been privy to showed voters narrowly opposing spending public funds for such a development. This may be a real change, driven by hometown pride swollen by recent boosterism. It might be due to the real and immediate threat posed by Seattle. It also might just be an issue of a poll’s margin of error obscuring its meaning.

It is curious that a significant portion of the populace, at least 25% of Sacramentans, want to hold a referendum to potentially overturn a choice they support (The 78.3% of respondents who support a referendum minus 53% who either oppose an arena or did not provide an opinion). I would really love to ask some follow-up questions of the voters who said:

Q1: Do you support the arena …?
A1: Yes, I support the arena.
Q2: Should we have a referendum to overturn the decision to build the arena?
A2: Yes, I think we should have a referendum.
Q3: Do you really believe this or are you just a very pleasant person and like answering “Yes” to everything? (I acknowledge the wording of this question could lead to a confusing response)

Unfortunately, as I understand it, this was a very short poll, without additional follow-up questions, so nothing further can really be divined, beyond the simple fact that voters want to vote, just like ballers want to ball and players want to play. It is the simple order of things.

Is it right or wrong? That is a complicated philosophical question, which gets to the heart of democratic theory. On one hand, in a democracy, voters are supposed to decide. On the other hand, as has played out dramatically in California through the initiative system, too much democracy can be a problem.

As voters we do our best, but we have a limited bandwidth to be adequately informed about complicated policy issues and limited experience to make decisions in the wider policy and budgetary context. In short, voters are good at deciding issues of principle and basic direction. We are not good at making nuanced policy decisions or long term fiscal planning. This is an issue that could fall within either category, depending on how you look at it.

If it is a simple question of whether we should make supporting the Kings a financial priority (As UOP Professor Jeff Michael put it, ‘how much do we like art versus sports’); that is exactly the kind of question voters are good at answering.

If it is a more complex question of whether it is a worthwhile economic development project whose benefits outweigh its costs (both tangible and opportunity costs) while fitting into our current and future fiscal context; that is a question that voters will find more challenging. In this case, the public debate would likely devolve either into a referendum on the Kings or taxation in principle, rather than the relative benefits of this policy. It may be worth noting, as you would probably expect, the poll’s author disagrees with me on this concept.

  • We’ve reached a point in democracy where I don’t trust my elected officials, and I don’t trust voters.

    There are too many uninformed morons in both groups.

  • What are we paying these politicians for…it is to make decisions on our behalf!! I am so tired of NIMBY’s wrapping themselves in the delusion that every decision they disagree with requires a vote by the general public.

    We just had a city council election. If any voter did not consider how their council person would vote on this issue in that election, then they weren’t paying attention and I sincerely doubt their vote would be any better thought out now. Enough is Enough!!

  • couldn’t you have quasi voted on this during the election last year? KJ won 60 percent.

    • William Burg

      KJ didn’t even whisper the word “arena” during the campaign, because he knew it would galvanize opposition to his re-election, and the elections of his supporters on the council. But shortly after the second term began,, the annual “last ever chance to build a new arena” dance began.

  • At least it’s not the annual strong mayor….

  • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

    Great article Devin. Played with a very even hand. The question of “what should actually be put to a vote” in a democracy is incredibly complicated and the discussion from the Economist on that topic is definitely worth a read.

  • jrmccabe

    Rhys02 – When politicians fail to effectively make decisions on our behalf, then the public should have the right to step in and make the decision by public vote. I am not referring to the decisions made on smaller issues (e.g.,- removal of a tree or noise from an establishment), which tend to be more “NIMBY” related issues, I’m taking about large scale issues that can bear a significant cost (e.g., – sales tax initiative, Arena). No matter how informed or uninformed a voter is about who they vote for, once that candidate is elected, there is NO guarantee that they will remain in line with the issues they claimed to support/oppose when campaigning…. HELLO, they are politicians!

  • The founders wanted more of a representative democracy and would probably not be happy with the extent to which issues are put directly to the people for a vote. The idea was that the people are not in the position to cast an informed vote directly on most complex issues of governance. Also, many issues go to the public because politicians are afraid to cast a controversial vote on, say, taxation, and so jeopardize their continued stay in office. Politicians usually like to vote whichever way they perceive the public wants them to. That’s the best way to stay in office. This lack of leadership, in which officeholders seldom act in the people’s interest when the people don’t understand their interest in a complex matter, is one of the problems this country faces. One of the reasons California is in such a fiscal and governmental mess is because of initiatives and referendums in which spending is approved but taxes to pay for it are not. I’m making these comments separate from whether I think the arena is a good idea, by the way, but it is interesting to note that the story states the poll showed people support the arena, so you might say in this case the politicians did what the people wanted.

    • Joel Rosenberg

      Hear, hear, Frank. Why we need to vote on dozens of measures and propositions is beyond me. Besides the extremely high cost of running the vote, this is why we’ve delegated governance in the first place.

      I understand the occasional civil rights and paradigm shift decision that needs to be put to the community, but I really prefer not to consider myself qualified to understand the implications of a half cent safflower oil subsidy to certain parcels of farmland that meet 3 milestones of an EPA pesticide standard.

    • Tony Sheppard

      There’s a significant different between actions that last a year or two, and which might be reversed by voting certain people into or out of office, and actions that have clear and intentional financial implications for decades to come.