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Cameras, not coal, decided the election

By On

How much influence did the Washington Conservation Voters have on the recent elections in Bellingham?

Daniel Pike, Seth Fleetwood and Cathy Lehman were the WCV slate in the Bellingham elections. There is some evidence in the precinct returns that about 10,000 - 12,000 votes were a block that voted the WCV ticket. That’s a big chunk of votes, but it only appears to have been decisive in Cathy Lehman’s defeat of incumbent Barry Buchanan. Larry Farr was not much of a threat to Seth Fleetwood and that race was not considered to be much of a contest. The end result of the WCV attempt to influence the election was: Fleetwood reelected as expected; a surprisingly strong win by Cathy Lehman; and a narrow loss by Pike. Why did Lehman and Fleetwood outpoll Pike? If the coal train issue was as influential as some have claimed, then why did Pike get the boot?

Here’s the conundrum: the mayoral race got a total of about 25,000 votes. However, they were split right down the middle with Pike getting about 12,300 and Linville getting a few more. But at slightly less than 15,000 votes each, Lehman and Fleetwood got more votes than Pike. If the coal trains and WCV were big influences, why should Pike, the banner-carrier for that issue, end up with about 2,400 votes less than two candidates on the same side of that issue?

The 2,400 vote spread between Pike and Lehman/Fleetwood argues against a strong coat-tails effect for Pike’s big money campaign. You can’t have coat-tails when you pull fewer votes. So the question becomes why was there a strong linkage between Lehman and Fleetwood that didn’t apply to Pike.

The big Bellingham vote-getting race was the mayoral contest, not the traffic cameras initiative above it on the ballot. It's reasonable to infer that the huge expenditures in the mayor's race brought up the turnout some. Pike’s expenditures did him little good. The mayoral race drew more voters, but the majority went to Linville, not Pike. The falloff means there were people who voted in the mayoral race who didn’t vote in the other city races—and they voted against Pike.

Looking down the ballot, the unopposed race set the lower limit for falloff with Terry Borneman barely edging out Jack Weiss with both races turning out about just less than 17,000 each. The mayor's race turned out about 25,000, so there's roughly 8,000 votes up for grabs due to falloff. The two contested council seats both turned out around 22,000, so there were about 3,000 votes uncast between the mayoral and contested council seats. The traffic camera initiative turned out about 22,600 votes, so there’s only a little falloff between the initiative and the two council races.

Interestingly, both Fleetwood and Lehman pulled in almost exactly the same number of votes and so had the same falloff. Both of the council winners outpolled Pike and Linville by about 2,400 votes. The nearly identical city-wide totals for Fleetwood and Lehman are a statistical coincidence. Comparing the precinct numbers shows a sizable overlap, probably not more than 85% at the very most, between Lehman and Fleetwood voters. So most of the votes for Lehman were also votes for Fleetwood, but not all of them.

At most, the people who supported both Lehman and Fleetwood would be about 12,500 votes as a block. Lo and behold, Pike’s total was about 12,300. This sets an absolute upper limit on the size of the WCV voting block. It can’t be bigger than that and it is probably less. It will require careful comparison of the precinct numbers to make certain this isn’t just one of those coincidences. But keep the relationship between Pike and the council races in mind, because I’ll return to it later.

Now let’s look at the possibility of linkage between the traffic camera initiative and the council races. The Buchanan/Lehman race was an upset for an incumbent. That’s unusual, so we should be looking for why it happened. Fleetwood beating Farr is much more the normal sort of incumbent romping home that is the norm in stand-pat city.

The traffic camera initiative is a good predictor of precinct votes for Lehman and Fleetwood. Both the council races overlapped the traffic cameras issue with Buchanan having supported the cameras in council and Fleetwood having been the sole dissenting vote. The statistical correlation shows that the traffic cameras influenced the council elections.

But what about the mayor’s race? In this case, the votes that weren’t part of the WCV voting block appear to have also been yes votes on the traffic camera initiative. Pike owned the traffic cameras, as did all of the city council other than Fleetwood. No amount of posturing about coal trains was going to divert the hostility Pike earned himself over the cameras. Those votes for the initiative were the difference between the big margins Lehman and Fleetwood had in their elections and the narrow loss by Pike.

Here’s how the critical votes went down. The voter comes to the first Bellingham item on the ballot, the initiative to ban the traffic cameras. The voter votes for the initiative and their blood pressure goes up a bit. Next comes the mayors race. Pike, as mayor, signed the contract with ATS. That’s a vote for Linville. Here comes Cathy Lehman and Barry Buchanan. Barry supported the cameras. That’s a vote for Lehman. Now we are at Terry Borneman, unopposed camera proponent. No way to vote against him, so no vote in that race. Along comes Seth Fleetwood and Larry Farr. Seth, the sole dissenting vote against the cameras, collects a vote.

So the furore over the coal trains was less important to the election than the traffic cameras.
If the election had been higher turnout, I’d lean toward explanations that people were voting for rather than voting against. If there was a higher turnout, I might think people were drawn to the election by the winning candidates. But the low turnout and ballot falloff makes people voting against the losers the simpler and more likely explanation.

Postscript for math wonks and statistics nerds

The statistical test to see if the traffic cameras cost Pike the election boils down to this question: are the precincts with a stronger vote for the traffic camera initiative also the precincts where the erosion of the WCV voting block support for Pike was strongest? Those of you who have the precinct results in computer readable form and some statistics mojo are invited to pitch in and do a little of the heavy lifting.

The statistical test I’m proposing is the positive correlation - Pearson’s r - between the difference in each precinct’s vote from the citywide average of the traffic camera initiative yes vote, and Pike’s falloff from the Lehman/Fleetwood votes. If the precincts that voted more strongly in favor of the traffic camera initiative also had a stronger falloff from the council to the mayor’s race, then the hypothesis is supported. If the correlation is negative or weak, then the hypothesis is disproven. But the numbers at a glance make a negative correlation nearly impossible, so the question really comes down to how strong the positive correlation is.

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Update - the statistics show there is a small to moderate correlation between the traffic camera initiative and people voting for Lehman and not voting for Pike. The scatter plot has the strength of support for the traffic camera initiative along the horizontal axis and the falloff (as a percentage of Lehman's total) from Lehman to Pike. If the correlation was perfect, the dots would form a straight line at 45 degrees. With those two outliers in the data set, the correlation is about 0.12. If you remove the two outliers (tiny precincts 210 and 237), the correlation jumps up to 0.26.

That's it. Case closed. The traffic cameras were the decisive factor in the mayoral election.

About Paul deArmond

Closed Account • Member since May 29, 2009

Paul de Armond used to be a writer, reporter and research analyst. He is the recipient of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force 2001 Human Rights Award. In the 1990s, he [...]

Comments by Readers

Doug Starcher

Nov 20, 2011

Brother Sweeney, Feel free to weigh in…....................I’m just happy Kelli won!

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Tip Johnson

Nov 20, 2011

Lesson learned from the Critical Areas ordinance referendum and property-rights-based County Secession movements.  Political organizing contemporary with elections can yield short-term voting blocks with strong elective effect.  Issues that blame seem more effective than issues that aim for untested ground. 

Eiman showed this with his transportation initiative. His initiative was prospective, aiming to direct the public’s policy away from congestion pricing and revenue transfers for transportation projects, all policies unfamiliar to voters.  He failed for lack of resonance.

Generally, I’d guess referenda are more effective than initiatives.  They are easier to qualify.  They abate the contested measure, assuring it will be an election issue.  Initiatives often lead places the legislature won’t touch.  There are reasons for that, and it probably usually plays toward defeat.

In Bellingham, two issues were forced, the anti-camera initiative and coal train opposition.  The camera folks got busy, hit the streets, met people and talked.  They also signed them up and got their vote.  Then they got political “juice” by qualifying their measure.  Many of their family and friends would follow.  The camera initiative was more like a referendum that didn’t get organized in time. But they did have bad guys and no one had to guess who. They hit their issue and found community resonance.

Coal trains didn’t have any bad guys, at least not any you could vote against.  Coal train opposition tried to make a good guy instead, but maybe tried a bit too hard.  They screwed up on yard signs and emails, they were not on the street, meeting people and offering something to do.  Instead, they had community meetings and a lot of research for folks to digest, but no candidate to blame.  In the end, both mayoral candidates shared similar positions on the issue, interestingly, stronger positions that Lehman ever asserted.

I would agree that traffic lights trumped WCV’s efforts.  For the City results, contested winners were all up around 7 thousand votes, mirroring the camera initiative.  Pikes results were the anomaly, possibly reflecting his own initiative and energy on the coal issue.  I just don’t see where WCV made a whit of difference in town.

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Dick Conoboy

Nov 20, 2011

What bothered me most about the camera initiative issue was the conflating of several subjects into the one initiative.  To remind folks, here is the language of the initiative: 

City of Bellingham Initiative No. 2011-
01 concerns automated traffic safety
cameras. This measure would require
the removal of any automated cameras
used to issue tickets for stoplight,
railroad crossing, and school zone
violations installed under a 2010
ordinance and prohibit the installation
of such cameras to issue tickets,
unless approved by City Council and a
majority of voters at an election, and
limit the penalty to the lowest parking
ticket fine.

The promoters were asking for agreement on four different issues in the same initiative, which pushed me to vote against it in its entirety.  One aspect was to remove any camera installed under the 2010 agreement.  Second, was to require city council approval of any such cameras in the future.  Third was to require voter re-affirmation of any city council approval of such cameras.  And fourth was a limitation on the fine as a result of a camera produced infraction.  This has to have been one of the most poorly worded and constructed initiatives I have ever read and my hat goes off to the creator(s) who surely had to be a committee that was an offshoot of the builders’ conclave of the Tower of Babel.

I am not opposed to red-light or speed cameras.  I am opposed to the government privatizing the effort as would have been done here.  I think a simple council vote should suffice to pass a law.  If we don’t want our city council to pass laws without another vote from the populace, then we can go directly to citizen vote on any number of issues - pick your favorite.  That will keep the auditor busy and provide plenty of overtime pay to boot.  I also see no reason to limit the fine on these infractions.  Red-light running and speeding in school zones are particularly dangerous offenses and to equate them with a parking ticket is risible.

I am thankful that this initiative essentially carried no weight, except as advisory in nature, because nobody can ever know precisely what one was actually voting for or against.

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John Watts

Nov 20, 2011

This article and all three comments to date are well thought out and plausible.
WCV does have significant clout, but it is not clear how far this may have exceeded a ‘whit’ on any specific matter.
Pike’s negatives were certainly more numerous than just coal and cameras. I suspect his ‘style’ -observed over time- had much to do with his unpopularity and contributed to his defeat.

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Larry Horowitz

Nov 20, 2011

I agree with John Watts.  When candidate Pike first ran in 2007, I liked Pike.  I liked what he had to say, and I especially liked that he assured voters his focus would be on doing what was best for the citizens of Bellingham.

I have no idea why others voted the way they did.  Certainly the explanations offered by Paul, Tip and Dick make sense, but none of these explain how or why I voted for the various candidates.

I’m also not sure precisely which of Pike’s negatives John Watts has in mind; but for me, the most glaring weakness is Pike’s inability to discern whether the advise he received from staff, especially legal staff, was worth following.

The city attorney does not represent the citizens of Bellingham.  Instead, the city attorney represents the city as a municipal corporation.  When doing what’s best for the citizens may involve some cost to the city, the city attorney’s advice is generally slanted strongly in favor of saving money. 

Unfortunately, there are many situations when what makes ‘cents’ does not make ‘sense’.  On several occasions that I am aware of, Pike refused to consider sound legal arguments that contradicted the city attorney’s guidance, especially when the city attorney was focused exclusively on protecting the city corporation - as opposed to protecting citizens. 

As my friend Greg Kirsch will remind us, Mayor Pike did much good.  But as John Watts contends, Mayor Pike’s negatives may have outweighed his positives.  Pike’s failure, inability, and/or refusal to discern good advice from bad was one of the main reasons I could not vote for him again.

Every candidate assures us they will do what’s best for the citizens.  So, what happens to that commitment once they take office?  At least in Pike’s case, his commitment was not long-lived.

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Michael Lilliquist

Nov 21, 2011

Classic statistical problem, Paul:  Correlation does not imply causation.  You have identified a fall-off from other progressive, WCV-supported candidates to Pike, and you have shown that this fall-off is correlated with supporting the anti-camera initiative, but it is entirely plausible that the true underlying factor is voter’s reaction not to Pike’s policies and positions on this one issue, but a reaction to Pike’s reputed leadership style.  You might be right, but your statistics will never be able to prove it.

How does Pike differ from Lehman and from Fleetwood?  They all have different reputations for leadership and interpersonal style.  When ideology is similar, character drives outcome.  That’s probably what happened here.

The photo-enforcement camera program is being portrayed as having been pushed through without discussion and by direct mayoral actions—and this portrayal aligns with the scuttlebutt on Pike.  Indeed, it may be that the depiction of how the photo-enforcement issue was handled helped to create the depiction, not just enforce it.

I am refraining from actually talking about the photo-enforcement program or process or initiative, and instead talking only about the campaign-related aspects.  Conversations about the photo-enforcement program should be done via my city email, in order to be in the public record.
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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Riley Sweeney

Nov 21, 2011

Actually, I’m going to agree with Michael somewhat. There were many reasons to vote for Lehman, Fleetwood or Pike and lots of reasons to vote against. You make a case for the Camera vote, but it could very well be other issues. We can only assess issues of geography in a quantitative manner. That said, I’ve heard worse theories.

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Paul deArmond

Nov 21, 2011

Michael:  your argument is a straw man.  the statistical linkage to the traffic camera initiative doesn’t exclude other reasons for people not to vote for Pike.  I’m not claiming that and you are wrong to say I am.

If you want to talk stats, let’s talk stats.  O.26 correlation means that part of the falloff is statistically linked to the voting patterns on the traffic cameras.  0.26 is far above the level of a chance result.  If you want to dismiss that by invoking occult causes, go right ahead, but we’re not talking stats anymore.

Look carefully at the scatter plot and you can see those precincts forming a small cluster at 45 degrees passing through the origin.  Those are the points that tightly match my hypothesis. 

The majority of the precincts show a higher falloff than predicted by the initiative yes vote.  That suggests other reasons for voters to dislike Pike besides the traffic cameras.  More than that is not discernible from the data.

Pike clearly had negatives that went beyond the traffic cameras.  But there’s no evidence about what they might be in the data.  So statistics aren’t going to have anything to say about that anymore than they are going to give insight into Larry’s mental processes.  That’s not how stats work.

If we’re going to test competing hypotheses, then I’d be happy to have somebody state their affirmative case and do the numbers. 

Both Pike’s and Buchanan’s defeat are anomalous events.  Fleetwood’s reelection is not.  It’s only reasonable to expect some statistical signature can be discerned.

Being uncomfortable with the results is not the same as actually doing the work and putting up some numbers.  If you think it’s a false correlation, then you also need to assume some of the burden of proof, not just assert your dislike of the result.

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Christy Nieto

Nov 22, 2011

To Michael who wrote “Conversations about the photo-enforcement program should be done via my city email, in order to be in the public record.”

That’s funny, none of my emails to the council nor to the mayor regarding cameras were ever answered with the exception of Jack replying directly to a couple of sidenotes.

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John Watts

Nov 22, 2011

This discussion resembles some version of an attempted reductio ad absurdum. Not enough credible information or argument is presented to convince everyone one way or the other, not an uncommon thing to happen.
People will believe what they will, just as I believe this is making a Gulliver issue out of a Lilliputian matter.

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Tip Johnson

Nov 22, 2011

Actually John, your last sentence is the only statement I see that truly qualifies as reductio ad absurdum, even summa absurdum! ;-)

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