SF Chamber poll distorts the facts...again

This logo on the Chamber website sends visitors to select results, but not the underlying questions, statements, or data.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce this week released its annual City Beat poll – promoting its results at the top of its website and feeding it to media outlets such as the San Francisco Examiner, which faithfully reported its finding, apparently without seeking underlying data – and once again the poll was marred by distortions and hidden agendas.

For example, the Chamber claims that 58 percent of the poll's 500 respondents prefer runoff elections (up from 52 percent in 2011) and 31 percent prefer ranked-choice voting (down from 42 percent last year), with the balance refusing to answer or saying they don't know. But what the Chamber doesn't say is that voters were read a series of arguments for each system first, and the anti-RCV statement contained a flat-out inaccuracy.

“Critics of ranked choice voting say that it is a confusing system that results in lower voter turnout – as the last Mayoral election had the lowest overall voter turnout in more than 35 years. They say candidates are getting elected with extremely low number of votes which doesn’t represent the true will of the voters. Instead of ranked choice voting, they propose having run-off elections so that voters have a clear choice on something as important as Mayor,” the statement read.

Yet it's simply not true that November's 42.47 percent turnout was the lowest in 35 years (as you can see here). Off-year elections have far lower turnouts, as did the last mayoral election in 2007, which had a turnout of 35.6 percent. Even the hotly contested, pre-RCV November mayoral election of 2003 had a turnout of 45.67 percent, just a few percentage points higher that the low turnout that the question implies that RCV causes.

But Jim Lazarus, the Chamber's vice president of public policy, won't concede the error, telling the Guardian that respondents understand the statement to apply to only closely contested mayoral elections. “We believe the average voter realizes a competitive race is what we're talking about,” Lazarus said, dismissing the 2007 mayor's race as uncompetitive.

Yet Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, which supports RCV, said the poll was deceptive and seems designed to achieve results that are consistent with public policy stands that the Chamber has taken. “I think they do a better job of making their arguments than the RCV arguments,” he said.

“Supporters of ranked choice voting say it gives voters more choices and does not force voters to vote twice in just five weeks on the same contest. They say it has resulted in more diverse representatives for the city. They also say that it encourages campaigns to find common ground and ways to work together because they must win supporters of other candidates,” reads the polling statement.

Richie concedes that supporters of RCV have made these statements, but he said they aren't the strongest arguments or the ones they generally tend to lead with, such as how big spending by well-funded independent expenditure groups tend to dominate the low-turnout runoff elections, which more conservative candidates win every time in San Francisco.

But Lazarus claims the Chamber was trying to honestly gauge public opinion, not influence it in favor of Chamber positions. “We didn't skew it, we're trying to get honest answers,” he told us. “It doesn't do us any good to fake the outcomes. We aren't doing this for PR reasons or press releases.”

Yet many of the issues the poll dealt with are active campaigns in which the Chamber is trying to influence the decisions made at City Hall, such as its longstanding crusade to repeal the city's payroll tax. In the poll results, 57 percent of respondents said the supported a “payroll tax decrease from 1.5 percent to 1 percent, making up the difference with other revenues.” In the Examiner story, the paper even deleted that last crucial clause.

Yet what neither the Chamber nor the Examiner told readers was that the question was set up with this statement: “It has also been suggested that reforming the city’s payroll tax system could spur job growth. I would like to read you some potential tax reforms that have been suggested to help spur job growth.”

But even with that repetition of “spur job growth” as a prompt, only 25 percent of respondents agree with the crusade of the Chamber and its allies in City Hall to “Eliminate the payroll tax all together, replacing lost revenue with higher license fees and taxes on businesses.”

On the half-dozen tax measures the poll asked about, none of which received majority support, the questions were set up with this statement, “Some members of the Board of Supervisors have suggested a vote on new taxes may be necessary to help solve this budget deficit,” referring to the oft-demonized legislative body that enjoyed 45 percent in this poll, rather than Mayor Ed Lee, who has made similar suggestions and enjoys 68 percent support.

The poll was conducted by David Binder Research, and Binder was out-of-town and unavailable to answer questions. Lazarus said the language in the questions was jointly developed by Binder and the Chamber.