Online polls aren’t elections

It was discouraging to learn that the city of Kirkland made a decision about whether to put a sculpture in a park or not based solely on an unscientific “survey.” It’s discouraging for democracy, and reality-based civics.

To recap: Welder John Jackson of Tenino created a bronze 9/11 memorial, which he and others who created the Spirit of America Foundation, hoped would be installed near the Capitol in Olympia. But that idea was nixed by the state on the basis that the sculpture is of national, not state, significance. The foundation then took the sculpture on tour to let cities get a look and compete for it.

Kirkland found itself in the mix when resident Maureen Baskin proposed that the sculpture be placed in a city park, after seeing it on a truck at a Veteran’s Day event in Leavenworth. Kirkland’s arts commission and parks department approved the plan and chose Juanita Beach Park as the location, KOMO News reported.

A divided city council, however, decided to abdicate responsibility and instead make its decision based on an unscientific online “survey.” And those results, for some reason, are accepted and reported as if somehow valid.

“We did a survey, we got the results, the results told us what direction our citizens wanted to go. So regardless of my own disappointment, I think the path was clear,” said Kirkland city council member and deputy mayor Penny Sweet.

Yikes. An unscientific survey “not a clear path,” even when it’s reported that: “More than 80 percent of the (600) comments about the sculpture in the online survey were negative.”

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Because they are so easy to obtain, data derived from nonscientific methods are often confused with responsible survey results. At best, they reflect only the views of those who choose to respond. But they are also used as tools of ‘spin’ by those who wish to put forth a particular slant on popular opinion. Referred to as ‘voodoo polls’ by some polling experts, they lack the statistical significance achieved through proven sampling methods, and they have grown increasingly prevalent — especially on Web sites. Given the number of Internet opinion polls that are nonscientific, communications theorist James Beniger observed that they are just as unrepresentative as call-in polls (frequently sponsored by television and radio stations), pseudo-ballots (published in many magazines and newspapers), straw polls, and the ‘hands up’ of the studio audience. None of these approaches can properly measure or represent public opinion.”

The Kirkland City Council was free to decide this issue as it pleased; but it needs to take responsibility — rather than claiming that “the citizens have spoken.”

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