Statistics in the hands of Tim Eyman yield fictional narratives

Legislation & TestimonyRethinking and Reframing

“The select language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify. Statistical methods and statistical terms are necessary in reporting the mess data of social and economic trends, business conditions, ‘opinion’ polls, the census. But without writers who use the words with honesty and understanding and readers who know what they mean, the result can only be semantic nonsense,” author Darrell Huff writes in the introduction to his classic How to Lie with Statistics.

This passage came to mind this morning when our team was examining Tim Eyman’s latest email missive, which concerns yesterday’s Senate hearing on House Bill 1876, legislation that would aid Washington State voters by requiring fiscal impact disclosures to appear in ballot titles.

Ballot titles, for anyone who doesn’t know, are the short statements that voters see before being asked to mark “Yes” or “No” to decide the fate of a proposed law. Whatever words they contain are the only words that appear on the actual ballot representing a proposed initiative.

Arguments against, arguments for, fiscal impact statements, the complete text, and related materials don’t show up on the ballot. Only the ballot title does. The ballot title’s composition is thus of paramount importance.

Ballot titles are supposed to be impartial, but in practice, they often aren’t, especially when the measures they are describing are deliberately loaded up with prejudicial language by their sponsors.

Manipulating ballot title language to present destructive tax-cutting schemes in the most favorable terms possible is one of Tim Eyman’s nefarious skills, but it’s a skill that would be of limited use in the future of HB 1876 passes. That’s because 1876 sensibly requires that voters be informed if an initiative has a fiscal impact. There would be a short statement appearing after the concise description but before the Yes or No ovals stating that the measure would either increase or decrease funding for public services, with the affected services then described.

This statement, which would be simple and factual, would be immune from the kinds of manipulations Eyman has perfected… and that makes him very, very angry.

HB 1876 recently passed the House of Representatives and is now being considered in the Senate. On Friday, February 18th, it got its hearing in the Senate State Government Committee. After being caught off guard by the House’s passage of the bill, Eyman made mobilizing his followers against 1876 a top priority, urging them to sign up to testify against the bill, sign in against it, or do both.

Dozens of people and organizations supporting the bill, meanwhile, did likewise, including NPI.

As a consequence of all of the interest, the Senate State Government Committee was not able to hear spoken testimony from everyone who had signed up to testify remotely.

However, each side was given an opportunity to make its case through a selected number of speakers, as is usual for bills that attract both support and opposition.

This morning, Eyman gloated that his followers’ turnout was a “crushing victory”:

Crushing victory at Friday’s hearing: massive # of folks against anti-initiative bill: 857 con, 37 in-person pro.

Someone not familiar with how legislative testimony works might think upon reading this that there were twenty-three times as many people registering opposition to the bill as support.

But that would be an incorrect conclusion. Here, Eyman is comparing two very different things: the total number of people who either signed up to testify or put their names down in opposition to the bill against only the people who signed up to testify in favor of the bill.

(Eyman’s reference to “in-person” is nonsensical, by the way: this was an electronic hearing and no one appeared to testify in person. All testimony was accepted over Zoom.)

When he penned this morning’s missive, Eyman deliberately excluded hundreds of people who put their names down in favor the bill in the interest of peddling his “crushing victory” narrative. It is true that there were just thirty-seven people signed up to testify pro, and true that a total of eight hundred and fifty-seven people signed in con, or signed up to speak against.

But those are cherrypicked figures. An apples to apples comparison shows that the interest in the hearing was not as lopsided as Eyman claims:

Signed up to testify

37 pro
48 con
1 other
86 total sign-ups

Signed in, not wishing to testify

291 pro
2 other
809 con
1,102 total sign ins

Comparisons

Total pro: 328
Total con: 857

Some people signed in more than once, so the above figures include duplicates.

Eyman still could have bragged that the “con” side had higher numbers than the “pro” side without resorting to making a duplicitous comparison. But he went there anyway, because it’s what he does.

The number of sign-ups and sign-ins at a hearing is not a scientific measurement of public support for a bill, only an indication of how many activists or citizens were willing to take the time to respond to calls to action to participate in the legislative process. Looking at the sign-ins, we can see that a large number of people and organizations support the bill, including broad-based organizations with significant memberships, such as the League of Women Voters of Washington.

Eyman can gloat all he wants about his followers’ response to his furious appeals over the past week, but unfortunately for him, most Washingtonians are extremely supportive of legislation like HB 1876 that would add valuable context to initiative ballot titles.

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