It’s been nearly a month since Seattle voters rejected both of the officially sanctioned options for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The final tally: 70 percent of voters opted against the tunnel; and 57 percent voted against rebuilding a new & bigger elevated freeway.
As far as such things go, it was a landslide—a resounding “no” to both options. But does that end the controversy? Probably not.
You see, it was an oddly designed ballot: voters could vote for each option independently. Some folks voted “no” on both options (as the Stranger and P-I recommended), while others voted “yes” to both (on the theory that either option would be better than a stalemate). Plus, some voted on only one, and abstained on the other. And some even handed in blank ballots, as the Municipal League recommended as some sort of protest.
Now, I’m not complaining about the ballot design. The other viable alternative—with voters allowed only to choose between the elevated or the tunnel—was even worse. Tunnel vs. Elevated was a false choice.
Still, the unusual ballot may have muddied the waters a bit, making it harder for attentive politicos to figure out precisely what the voters actually meant—and easier for one side or the other to claim a tenuous victory where none was warranted.
So I spent some time with the vote file to try to clear things up a bit. And as far as I can tell, “double no” was the most common vote combination in the election, while “double yes”—i.e., a new highway any cost—was the least common.
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Unfortunately, the way King County recorded the votes, there’s no way to tell exactly how many people voted in any particular combination (yes-yes, no-no, yes-no, blank-blank, and so forth). The best I could do was to figure out the maximum and minumum number of people in each precinct who could have voted in any particular combination. Here’s what I learned:
- At most 24 percent of the electorate—and possibly as low as 0 percent—voted “yes” on both measures.
- Somewhere between 21 percent and 51 percent of the electorate voted “no” to both options.
- at most 4,624 voters, or 3 percent of the electorate, followed the Municipal League’s advice, and handed in blank ballots.
- Opposition to the tunnel was pretty close to universal: out of 984 precincts across the city, only 16 precincts reported a majority in favor of the tunnel. (Ouch.)
- About 30 percent of the precincts voted in favor of the elevated.
Now, as I was playing with the numbers, I noticed something kinda neat—if you average the minimum and the maximum in each vote category, you come pretty darn close to the total votes cast for each option. And that suggests that the average of the minimum and maximum gives a pretty good approximation for how people actually voted. The score:
- No to both: 36%
- No to the tunnel, yes to the elevated: 31%
- No to the elevated, yes to the tunnel: 16%
- Yes to both: 12%
(The remainder left at least one ballot blank—e.g., “yes” to the tunnel, abstained on the elevated.)
If you do the math, these figures can’t be exactly right. But they’re probably not too far off—and I don’t think I can “fix” them without introducing some sort of bias.
But here’s one interpretation that jumps out at me. A “double yes” vote could probably be interpreted as meaning something like “I want a new highway—any highway—on the waterfront. I don’t really care about the cost, and I’m fine with whatever option other voters prefer—I just want one built.” That is, the “double yes” voters represent the hard core, true believers in the future of a waterfront highway.
And that position represents only about one-eighth of the electorate.