by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s “long reads” include a close look at a local political survey; the Washington State Health Department’s biweekly status update on the spread of COVID-19 in the state; and a guide to how Seattle’s foray into participatory budgeting might take shape.
Surveying Seattle Voters on Policing and Homelessness
This past week the Downtown Seattle Association and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, two of the leading advocacy groups for the Seattle business community, released some of the results from a recent survey they commissioned by local research firm EMC. It generated some local news coverage for seeming to uncover broad opposition to defunding SPD, as well as widespread concern about the accumulation of homeless encampments in parks and public areas of the city.
But a close inspection of the survey report provides plenty of reasons for us to question its reliability. The first red flag is that the DSA and Chamber of Commerce didn’t release the full survey; they only published the parts that fit the narrative they wanted to tell. If the rest of the data supported that narrative, we can rest assured that they would have released that, too; so we can assume that there are other findings that they don’t want us to know. For example, the survey report presents approval ratings on the City Council, but not on the Mayor. I contacted the DSA and asked for the full report; they refused.
The survey report’s description of its methodology is also very sparse. It tells us that EMC surveyed 900 Seattle “likely voters” in late October. But as we’ve learned from the last few major elections — including last week’s — the traditional notion of a “likely voter” isn’t nearly as predictive as it used to be. And even if it is, the fact that they focused on likely voters tells us two things: that the survey doesn’t represent all Seattleites and that the DSA and Chamber are trying to send a message to the city’s elected officials about how they are likely to fare in next year’s elections.
There are other problems with the methodology — or at least in how much they disclose about it. They say that the interviews were done through live telephone and “text to web,” but they don’t say the percentages of each. They also don’t say how many of the telephone interviews were old-school landlines versus cell phones; the demographic differences between landline users and cellphone users are substantial. But they also mention that they “oversampled” in Council districts 1, 2, 6 and 7 — places where there are known strong feelings about policing and homeless encampments — while presumably undersampling Districts 3 (Capitol Hill and the Central Area), 4 (UW students), and 5 (an underserved community at the very north end of the city). They don’t provide the final split of those surveyed from each district, so we have no idea how close to representative their sample really is. Yet they claim a margin of error of 4.2 points with a 95% confidence level, which means they believe that 95% of the time the way they sampled Seattle voters (and the size of the sample) will generate results that are within 4.2 points, plus or minus, of the ground truth. This claim is unverifiable given how little information they have provided on their methodology. Further, even if it’s true, it only applies to results for the entire group; the margin of error for a subgroup such as 18-39 year olds or renters could be very different, since it’s a much smaller set of samples. In all, we don’t have any good sense of how accurate this poll is.
The survey also has many of the other problems that typically plague this sort of politically-driven poll. Its choices are generally “much” or “a little” in one direction, “much” or “a little” in the other direction, or “I don’t know.” There’s no option for a neutral position — and of course there’s no option for a mixed, nuanced viewpoint, which is a deep-seated issue with doing this kind of survey at all. But when polls force people to take a side for or against, it naturally and inevitably leads to more polarized results. Paired with leading and extreme questions, of which this survey has plenty, the result is strong results that can overstate the feelings of the citizenry.
So what should we do with a poll like this? If we’re honest, nothing. We should throw it away. Everything it says might actually be true, but there is no way to know based on the limited information we’ve been given, and the DSA and Chamber of Commerce are withholding the data we’d need in order to establish its reliability. Not bothering to look at a survey like this one is a tough discipline to maintain: we all like numbers, and when presented with some (and accompanying pretty graphs) our natural reaction is to presume that they are legitimate and start looking for meaning in them. This poll is an interesting lesson in how to scrutinize a survey report to figure out how much faith we should give it; in this case, it fails close scrutiny and isn’t worth consideration. The survey isn’t right, nor is it wrong; it simply isn’t credible.
COVID Transmission Across Washington State
This week the Washington State Department of Health started sounding the alarm over the rapid rise of COVID-19 transmission on both sides of the Cascades. Their latest “situation report” paints a bleak picture. You may recall that the measure of transmission for a disease, known as “R,” tells us how many people an infected person is expected to pass it on to. Scientists start by estimating R0, or how infectious the virus is if no measures are put in place to stop its spread. Then they start measuring the effective R at given points in time as communities start taking action. The original coronavirus had an R0 of somewhere around 2.5; over the summer a new mutation known as D614G, which spreads more easily, overtook the original version of the virus and is now the dominant strain, though I have yet to see a revised estimate of its R0.
The goal of public health efforts is to get R below 1, so that fewer people are becoming infected over time. Here in Washington we did that in April and then again in late summer. But the Department of Health now estimates that R has bounced back to around 1.29 in Western Washington and 1.36 in Eastern Washington. A jump back up, leading to a third “wave” of the virus, was expected as we moved into the winter months and we all started spending more time indoors.
There is now substantial concern, as there was in the early days of the pandemic, that COVID cases will overwhelm hospital resources. And hospital beds are indeed filling up on both sides of the state. We also know now that the rate of hospitalizations tends to lag the number of cases of COVID for two weeks, so even if a miracle happened and the number of cases flattened out, the strain on our hospitals will continue to increase at least through the end of the month.
The report also has a county-by-county breakdown of where COVID is rising rapidly. In Western Washington, it’s mostly in the Puget Sound region (King, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston, and Kitsap counties) plus Clark County next to Portland. In Eastern Washington it’s concentrated around Spokane, Walla Walla, and a few of the nearby counties. It also looks at which age ranges are the hardest hit, and the third wave is looking much like the second wave: dominated by the 25-to-59 age range.
This is a very serious situation. Wearing masks is important to slow the spread, but it’s not enough; we all need to be religious about maintaining social distances, washing our hands frequently, minimizing time in crowded indoor locations, and self-quarantining (and getting tested) if we start feeling ill. And we all need to give serious thought to whether that big Thanksgiving get-together is really a good idea.
What Does “Participatory Budgeting” Look Like?
We hear the term “participatory budgeting” thrown around a lot in Seattle as the City Council, at the urging of advocacy groups, embraces it as a means to engage BIPOC communities in determining what kinds of investments will provide the greatest benefit in their communities and start to create alternatives to policing as a basis for public safety. But if you’re confused about what participatory budgeting (PB) is, you’re not alone.
In late 2018, the Hewlett Foundation sponsored a workshop to bring leaders of participatory budgeting efforts from around the world together to begin to assemble guidance and resources for other jurisdictions and communities that want to give it a try. The report out from that workshop provides interesting insights into the kinds of initiatives that those who have gone through a participatory budgeting exercise think might be useful for cities like Seattle. But the really interesting, meaty stuff is in the appendix, which includes a collection of “archetypes” of PB models that have been tried. The good news is that there is plenty of precedent for customizing participatory budgeting to fit the community’s needs. The bad news is that there are a lot of hard (though not insurmountable) issues that need to be worked out in doing so. How is the “committee” that organizes the PB process chosen, and who do they represent? How are potential projects (and the organizations proposing them) chosen for evaluation and a potential vote? Who gets to vote — and when they do vote, are they making a binding decision or simply providing recommendations to the City Council? Are there financial conflicts of interest that disqualify certain organizations and projects from eligibility for funding? Are there limits to the scope of investments that could potentially get funded? Is there any forum for appealing the decisions of a participatory budgeting process? And what kind of training do people need in order to have a role in organizing the participatory budgeting process?
Assembling a participatory budgeting program for Seattle will be a lot of work. It’s a good thing that there are examples to build upon, rather than starting from scratch.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Insight, a website providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears from time to time on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.
Before getting into journalism Kevin worked at Microsoft for twenty six years, including seventeen in the company’s research division. He has twin daughters, loves to cook, and is trying hard to learn Spanish and the guitar.
Featured image by Alex Garland.