Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Referendum Schmeferendum ... Let's Do a Poll!

Posted By on Wed, Dec 16, 2009 at 12:33 PM

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Is the chatter this week about a possible public referendum on the proposed Music City Center necessary or helpful? After all, if we really want to know what Nashvillians think about building a new convention center, there's a far cheaper and better way to find out.

The group Nashville's Priorities is collecting signatures on a petition urging a non-binding referendum under section 7.05 of the Metro Charter. (Funding for MCC relies on revenue bonds, the approval of which is shielded by law from a binding public vote.) County election officials estimate that conducting a referendum would cost taxpayers about $300,000.

That's a pretty hefty price tag for what would inevitably be a highly flawed measure of public opinion on the proposed project. Ordinarily, voting is important because regardless of who shows up, it determines an outcome. In this situation, however, voting on a non-binding ballot issue is meaningless because it determines no outcome. Having a vote with poor turnout is a fine way to fill a public office or approve/disapprove an initiative because it serves democracy--those who choose to show up get to participate. But when the goal is merely to find out what the people think--as in this case--a low-turnout ballot initiative isn't the best way to do it.

For a whole lot less than $300K we could accurately take the pulse of the city's taxpayers with a high-quality professional poll. Polling experts tell Pith that a well-executed survey with a properly drawn sample of 500 would run about $25,000 or so, depending on questionnaire length. A follow-up tracking poll, if there's time, would add another $12-$15K to the tab. So for less than 15 percent of the cost of a meaningless referendum, we could take an accurate snapshot of public opinion across the county.

Who would foot the bill? Leaders of Nashville's Priorities have floated the idea of a media-created poll financed jointly by their group and the pro-project MCC Coalition. Both The Tennessean and SouthComm (publisher of The City Paper and the Scene) have been approached but each declined to become involved--understandably so, since it would be dubious journalistic form for a news organization to commission a poll in cahoots with advocacy groups having a stake in survey results.

Polls on two occasions have gauged public support for the convention center project; both occurred before the economic downturn, and each showed underwhelming public enthusiasm. One of them, a SurveyUSA poll commissioned by The City Paper in July 2007 during the mayoral race at the time, simply asked if Metro should build a new downtown convention center. Among likely voters, 37 percent said yes, 51 percent said no and 12 percent were not sure. The other (private) poll, conducted around the same time, presented respondents with basic arguments for and against a new convention center, finding 30 percent of likely voters favoring a new convention center and 54 percent opposed, with 16 percent unsure or undecided.

There have been no new legitimate polls on this issue in almost two and a half years. Local media organizations are justified in avoiding a polling collaboration with advocacy groups, but there's nothing to bar them from partnering with each other. Times are lean in Nashville's newsrooms, no question, but surely the city's newspaper publishers and TV news operations can collectively manage to scrape up $40,000 or so to accurately assess community sentiment on this important issue.

If we really want to know what Nashvillians think about a new convention center, all we have to do is ask.

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