The Truth About “Advisory Votes”: They’re Really Push Polls
For the benefit of anyone researching Washington State’s general election ballots during the 2010s and early 2020s, this page explains what statewide “advisory votes” were, and how we successfully got rid of them.
PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2013
Recently, several newspapers have published articles about the five “advisory” votes that are on Washingtonians’ ballots this autumn, including The Seattle Times, Bellingham Herald, and the The Everett Herald.
All of the articles, along with an FAQ published by the Secretary of State’s office, stress that advisory votes are required by a provision of Tim Eyman’s Initiative 960, something which voters are not told on their ballots or in the voter’s pamphlet.
The articles also quote Eyman at length, giving Eyman an opportunity to characterize his creation as a good thing. But the “advisory votes” are not a good thing; there is nothing redeeming about them. They are actually very expensive push polls, conceived and written by Eyman, but paid for at public expense.
Push polls are not actually polls at all, as the user-edited encyclopedia Wikipedia explains: “A push poll is an interactive marketing technique, most commonly employed during political campaigning, in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of respondents under the guise of conducting a poll.” This perfectly describes Eyman’s “advisory votes”.
Eyman is being deceitful when he describes the advisory votes as “a way for voters to see the increases and send a message about how they feel about them” (that quote is from the Seattle Times) or “at least the voters can have a say and know how their legislators voted on these five tax increases” (that quote is from the Everett Herald).
Eyman, always the salesman, is not trying to empower voters with his push polls, he’s trying to influence them (and influence media coverage, too).
Eyman knows lawmakers can and will ignore the meaningless results of the push polls. His true objective is to sow misinformation, not take the pulse of the public. He wants fodder for future antigovernment missives.
What were “advisory votes”?
“Advisory votes” were created by disgraced initiative promoter Tim Eyman several years ago to influence how you think about the purpose and effectiveness of government in Washington State. They were like telephone push polls, except disguised as ballot measures instead of telephone surveys and aimed at bills that increase funding for essential public services instead of candidates for office.
“Advisory votes” came into being with the passage of Eyman’s Initiative 960 in 2007. I-960 said that every time the Legislature passes a bill that increases state revenue in some way, an “advisory vote” must appear on the ensuing general election ballot.
Just to reiterate: Only bills that increased state revenue triggered advisory votes. Other bills did not. If the Legislature passed a bill to give a corporation or an industry a new tax break, that did not trigger an “advisory vote”, but if the Legislature voted to end a tax break, that did trigger an “advisory vote”.
We put quotation marks around the words “advisory votes” because the term is a misnomer. Since “advisory votes” were purposely designed by Eyman to influence public opinion instead of measuring it, they were not in any way advisory. And since the outcomes of each one did not change state law, when people filled in the oval for one of the available responses, they were not actually voting on anything.
We prefer to call things what they really are, which is why we have long referred to the “advisory votes” as Tim Eyman’s push polls.
Real statewide ballot measures have outcomes that matter and are true forms of direct democracy. For example, when you vote on an initiative, you are deciding whether or not to create a new state law (which may repeal or change an existing law). When you vote on a referendum, you are deciding whether or not to keep a law the Legislature voted to adopt. And when you vote on a constitutional amendment, you’re deciding whether or not to change our plan of government.
For the first few years after I-960’s passage, nobody remembered the provision that requires the inclusion of the push polls on Washingtonians’ general election ballots, not even Tim Eyman himself, so it wasn’t enforced. In 2012, however, the Attorney General’s office began enforcing the provision. For ten years after that, Eyman’s push polls were an annual general election fixture.
What happened to Eyman’s push polls?
After a half decade of work, we got rid of them!
In April of 2023, the Legislature passed a bill proposed by NPI that permanently abolished Tim Eyman’s push polls and replaced them with truthful, useful fiscal information prepared by LEAP and OFM (Office of Financial Management). This bill, sponsored by Senator Patty Kuderer and Amy Walen, was adopted by the Senate on February 8th, 2023 and the House on April 7th, 2023.
Want to take a deeper dive? Then read on!
Let’s deconstruct Tim Eyman’s now-repealed push polls.
First, we’ll examine what voters saw when they unfolded their ballots to vote. Then we’ll discuss what they did not see.
Breaking apart Eyman’s push polls: What voters saw during the “advisory vote” era
Every push poll followed a format dictated by Section 8 of of the initiative.
- The language of each had to begin with the words “The legislature eliminated/imposed, without a vote of the people…” This implied that lawmakers acted arrogantly and in defiance of their constituents, when in reality it is their constitutional responsibility to make laws and pass a budget. Washington is a republic modeled on the United States and other states.
- Then there was a very short, jargon-laden description of the revenue that was raised or recovered. The amount was expressed in the form of a misleading ten-year cost projection. These cost projections, as we and the Washington Budget & Policy have pointed out, were intended to inflate the totals, to make them sound bigger and more impressive. Anything costs more over ten years. But we don’t budget decennially (every ten years), we budget biennially (every two years) or annually (every year).
- The purpose of each revenue increase, or recovery of revenue, was then described as “…for government spending”, language meant to imply there was no legitimate purpose. Again, the word choice was deliberate, intended to evoke right-wing framing. The image Eyman wanted to plant in voters’ minds was that of greedy politicians reaching into taxpayers’ pocketbooks to line government coffers.
- Finally, voters were asked what should be done with “this tax increase” (even if the revenue measure in question was the repeal of a tax exemption). Two choices were given: “Repealed” and “Maintained”. “Repealed” (the stronger of the two terms) was always listed first, and “Maintained” (the weaker of the two terms) was always listed second. The familiar Yes/No, or Approved/Rejected dichotomies were not used.
Breaking apart Eyman’s push polls: What voters didn’t see during the “advisory vote” era
As we have discussed, the ballot wording of Tim Eyman’s push polls is akin to a malicious script written by a political operative to be read over the phone to unsuspecting voters. Remember that with a push poll, the objective is not to collect any useful information, but rather to influence how people think. Push polls are distinguishable not just by the misinformation they convey, but the truth they leave out.
Here are some of the truths that were left off our ballots during the “advisory vote” era:
- “Advisory votes” were automatically triggered whenever the Legislature raised or recovered revenue for the state treasury.
- The revenue measures being subjected to a vote were typically enacted as part of budgets and needed to fund essential public services.
- Other aspects of the state budget did not get subjected to a vote, and there was no provision in state law that provides for automatic “advisory votes” for occasions when the Legislature makes other kinds of budgetary decisions – for instance, if it chose to reduce funding for vital public services or create a new tax loophole.
- The results of the “advisory votes” were not binding and never changed state law, unlike the outcome of an initiative or referendum.
- The Secretary of State was forbidden by I-960 from providing valuable context in the voter’s pamphlet that would ordinarily accompany a ballot measure, like fiscal impact statements or arguments for and against. Similarly, the Attorney General’s office was not permitted to write better ballot titles explaining the bills that were being put on the ballot alongside anti-tax propaganda.
Tim Eyman’s push polls, in three words
The push polls formerly required by Tim Eyman’s I-960 were best summarized in three words: Costly, deceptive, and unconstitutional.
Costly. The Seattle Times’ Brian Rosenthal and The Everett Herald’s Jerry Cornfield each noted that Eyman’s push polls increased the cost of producing the voter’s pamphlet by about $130,000. Eyman has previously dismissed this expense as “chump change”, which just goes to show that his supposed interest in making government “leaner” is a facade. However, Eyman’s push polls actually cost much more than this, because it costs serious money to print, mail, and tally ballots. We investigated these election costs and found that they ran into the millions when adding up the election cost vouchers from all thirty-nine counties.
Deceptive. Honest, credible researchers seek to take the pulse of the public by designing and conducting polls using the scientific method. Because the answers a pollster gets depend on the questions they ask, the questions must be carefully worded. Questions need to be as neutral as possible. Eyman’s “advisory votes” were dishonestly named. In reality, they were push polls that consisted of deceitfully-worded leading questions – questions that suggested their own answers. Eyman’s true, unstated objective was not to give everyone an opportunity to weigh in on the Legislature’s budgeting decisions, but rather to dishonestly influence Washingtonians, turning the people against their own government.
Unconstitutional. When the people of Washington enacted the Seventh Amendment in 1912, they reserved for themselves two methods of exercising direct democracy which cannot be expanded or contracted by a statute such as I-960: the initiative and referendum. These and constitutional amendments are the only statewide ballot measures the Constitution permits, and they are all binding. The Constitution does not authorize the mandatory and nonbinding “advisory votes” that I-960 required. Its referendum framework provides the only constitutional avenue for subjecting legislation to a vote of the people. Eyman’s push polls were thus unconstitutional. However, since they have been repealed, their lack of constitutionality is a moot issue.
ALSO SEE: Public Advisory Votes on November Ballot Are Tailored to Deceive (Washington Budget & Policy Center, October 22nd, 2013)