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How Did Wash. Class-Size Measure Go From Sure Winner To Possible Recount?

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
James Reed loads mailed-in ballots into a sorting machine at King County's ballot processing facility Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Renton, Wash.

How often does a ballot initiative in Washington state garner 60 percent support or better in public opinion polls before Election Day, only to wind up losing?

Pollster Stuart Elway can count the times on one hand. But now, there's a real possibility he could add a statewide class-size initiative to the list. 

Two October polls showed voters supported Initiative 1351, which calls for hiring thousands of teachers in an effort to reduce public school class sizes, by wide margins. Yet the vote count as of Thursday afternoon showed the initiative trailing by 12,171 votes, or 0.86 percentage point. An automatic recount occurs if the margin is 2,000 votes and less than one-half of a percentage point.

"The puzzling part is there was really no organized opposition," said Elway, whose early October poll showed I-1351 with a 42-point lead. "It would be easier to explain or understand if there was a massive, or even any, campaign at the end to say, 'Vote no.' But that didn't happen."

The All-Important Voters' Guide?

Elway hypothesizes this lack of organized opposition explains why it took some voters until late October to have second thoughts about I-1351. He notes The Seattle Times didn't recommend voters reject the measure until right around the time he put his poll in the field, and voters didn't receive their state-issued election guide until after he released poll results.

In 2000, voters passed a similar initiative aimed at reducing class sizes by a wide margin. (It had little effect; lawmakers ignored and ultimately repealed it.) But Elway suspects some voters opened their guides, saw I-1351 did not specify a source of funding and had second thoughts.

"Voters put a lot of stock in the voters guide. It’s usually named as a top source of information, particularly on initiatives, where they are often dense and somewhat confusing," Elway said. "I think in this case, the newspaper endorsements probably played a role also. They were unanimous. I don’t think there was one newspaper that didn’t editorialize against it."

Though no committee registered with state officials to oppose the initiative, the group calling itself "No 1351" created a website and social media accounts urging voters to reject the measure. The effort has fewer than 200 "likes" on Facebook.

"With essentially no money, a few of us said what needed to be said to defeat this initiative even though the unions spent $4 million to pass it," said Jami Lund, a spokesman for the group, in an e-mail statement.

Rare, But Not Unprecedented

Elway noted a later KCTS/University of Washington poll showed a narrower 29-point lead for I-1351, which he argues lends some credence to the idea that support for the measure had begun slipping in early October.

If the class-size initiative ultimately falls short, the collapse in public support would be rare, but not entirely unprecedented. In 2005, Elway says two competing medical malpractice initiatives were both polling above 60 percent, but ended up falling short on Election Day.

'This Is An Anomaly'

A statement from the I-1351 campaign, Class Size Counts, says it will likely be days before there are definitive results in the race.

"We are willing to wait," a campaign spokeswoman said. "Washington’s class sizes have been 47th out of 50 states for too long."

Making the questions surrounding I-1351's collapse even more vexing? Elway accurately predicted the result of the competing gun measures on this year's ballot. In the case of Initiative 594, he was correct nearly down to the percentage point.

"This is an anomaly," Elway said of I-1351. "It really is."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.