Last election day was a bad one for Washington State Republicans. They lost control of both houses of the Legislature as well as the state’s Congressional delegation. Yet the same electorate voted for a ballot measure to prohibit race and gender preferences for government hiring, contracting, and education. Despite steep odds, the measure, I-200, passed with an overwhelming 58 percent of the vote, sweeping 38 of the state’s 39 counties.
Of interest to donors is the fact that the funding that helped make the difference on I-200 came from a Sacramento, California-based 501(c)(3), the American Civil Rights Institute. The ACRI, in turn, raised the bulk of its I-200 budget from private foundations.
Without the timely and intelligently crafted support ACRI received from donors such as the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the better-organized opposition may well have succeeded in thwarting a ballot initiative that a majority of Washingtonians supported—once they were properly informed about it.
Ballot measures often lose because the burden of proof with the voters rests with a measure’s proponents. Opponents need only appeal to a risk-averse electorate to suggest that alleged problems in the status quo can be resolved without passing a “radical” ballot measure that “goes too far.” Indeed, it is quite possible for a ballot measure to lose not because people oppose it, but simply because people do not understand it.
This phenomenon nearly played out in the battle over I-200. The contest was unequal, with opponents outspending supporters by a margin of nearly four to one.
U.S. News & World Report, in describing the state’s voters as “progressive,” characterized the opposition to I-200 as a “Who’s Who” of the state. Gary Locke, the state’s popular governor, led the “no” forces, backed up by such corporate giants as Boeing, Costco, Eddie Bauer, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Nordstrom, Starbucks, and Weyerhaeuser. The state’s dominant newspaper, the Seattle Times, featured anti-I-200 editorials and columns, and its publisher gave away more than $200,000 in free anti-I-200 advertising.
Groups opposing I-200 also gave away plenty of misleading information. For example, the supposedly nonpartisan and objective League of Women Voters claimed in a brochure that I-200 “threatens equal pay for equal work.” In fact, I-200, which prohibits discrimination and preferences, requires equal pay for equal work.
Getting the Word Out
In an effort to inform the electorate of what I-200 does and does not do, I created an educational advertising campaign for ACRI. Ward Connerly, a member of the University of California’s Board of Regents, is the chairman of ACRI, and had served as chairman of the earlier campaign in California for Proposition 209.
Mr. Connerly had raised funds to place I-200 on the ballot in Washington. But in my arrangement with him for the educational activities, I created advertising that was entirely independent of the I-200 political campaign and well within the boundaries of allowable activity for a 501(c)(3). I had no contact with the political committees supporting or opposing I-200. My advertising did not advocate the passage or rejection of I-200. Instead, I designed an educational advertising effort to explain to people what I-200 did and did not do.
The $560,000 educational advertising “flights” included three 60-second radio commercials and one 30-second television commercial. Unlike political advertising, this educational advertising imparted information but did not implore people to support or oppose the measure.
The theme of the ads was “Understanding I-200.” The spots were complementary, reinforcing one another with similar scripts, the same voices, the same music, and the same ending, the better to aid retention and help the ads to stand out from the clutter of politics. Each spot emphasized that it was “an educational message paid for by the nonpartisan American Civil Rights Institute.” Rather than view the disclaimer as a legal requirement, I viewed it as an opportunity to enhance the credibility of each spot, since sponsorship by a 501(c)(3), if properly highlighted, can make a spot more appealing.
The goal was to present a simple, believable message, and since the spots were educational, I wanted them to look and sound educational. Educational, moreover, does not have to mean bland. The spots were creative and attention-getting. They sought to hook the listener or viewer at the beginning and to keep that person’s interest. But they also were dignified, with understated scripts.
The ads emphasized two key points. First, that the initiative says government cannot discriminate or grant preferences, by gender or race, in government jobs, schools, or contracts. And second, the initiative would mean that affirmative action could provide opportunity but not by employing set-asides, preferences, or quotas. Many political spots satisfy only their partisans; these spots provided critical information for the broad middle.
And they succeeded. The Seattle Times, which sponsored an exit poll, noted that: “Despite opponents’ charges that the language of I-200 was misleading and would confuse voters, most of those surveyed appeared to have a good grasp of the initiative.” The Times concluded: “Confused voters were a small portion of the electorate, and they were evenly spilt between I-200’s supporters and opponents.”
Turning Down the (Political) Heat
The implications for private philanthropy go beyond ballot initiatives to any situation in which donors face the challenge of explaining complex public policy issues directly to the public.
Presentation and wording are crucial, particularly when seeking to reach people in the middle. To be effective, ads should also provide information in a non-threatening way, and without asking people to vote one way or the other. In fact, it can be easier and more cost-effective to communicate with voters in a non-election year. Broadcast time can be purchased more efficiently and without intrusive political spots competing for attention, and it is easier to make a dispassionate presentation of the facts in an atmosphere that is not supercharged with political heat and vitriol.
Note that educational ads are not the same as the transparent “issue” ads created by the two major political parties. Nor are they the same as the corporate-funded issue ads on issues ranging from health care to tobacco taxes.
Educational ads are a way for foundations and donors to sponsor a serious discussion of major issues—a discussion that takes the form of television and radio advertising, and that shapes public opinion not by advocating a viewpoint, but by providing people with information that enables them to arrive at an informed opinion. And in the process, they helped make Washington’s I-200 campaign, which faced steep odds and powerful opponents, a success.
Arnold Steinberg is the author of two graduate texts, on politics and media, and served as strategist and principal consultant for California’s Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot initiative to end race-based set-asides. He has served for more than two decades as a trustee of the Fund for American Studies.