Beware the Bogus Measure 37 Poll

Biased poll is an "October surprise" intended to deceive voters, taint debate on property rights measures

Voters beware. Opponents of property rights measures on the ballot in California, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington have released a deceptive and dishonest poll to taint public opinion, proving once again that all is fair in love and war and politics.

A poll released Wednesday by the Defenders of Wildlife and the Izaak Walton League of America—two self-avowed opponents of the property rights measures on the November ballot—purportedly demonstrates “buyers remorse” among Oregonians who voted in Measure 37 in 2004. In an effort to address decades of regulatory abuse by Oregon governments, Measure 37 protected landowners by requiring that they be compensated when governments pass regulations that reduce the value of their property, or have the regulations waived. Despite a vigorous opposition campaign waged by environmentalists, Oregonians understood the importance of protecting property rights, passing the measure by a 61 to 39 percent margin.

Given that Measure 37 inspired these other states to place similar measures on the ballot, it makes sense that opponents would launch an October surprise to try and discredit it. It’s a classic “chop off the head of the snake” approach. Unfortunately for them, the transparent bias in this poll is on full view for the world to see.

Let’s start with the basics. The poll claims that if voters had to vote again, Measure 37 would lose by a two-thirds margin. But a quick glance at the findings indicate that this was a “push poll” of the most blatant variety. “Push polls” come straight out of Dirty Politics 101. Interviewers ask leading questions that steer respondents to a predetermined outcome.

In this survey, interviewers asked a series of questions that included cherry-picked, blatantly misleading “horror stories” of Measure 37 claims, as well as questions about “chaos” and “uncertainty” under Measure 37, development on “previously protected farmland and open space,” and exorbitant costs. How would you expect the average person respond to Measure 37 when they’re presented with a parade of horribles along the way? The poll report even tacitly acknowledges this by stating that, “[a]fter voters are read descriptions of specific cases under Measure 37, their opinion towards the measure grows even less favorable.”

Of course it does—when you drive a bus to a predetermined location, it’s hardly shocking or newsworthy when the passengers get off the bus there.

Just imagine that the survey had instead asked people their opinion about Measure 37 after hearing statements like, “Measure 37 has allowed long-time landowners to get their property rights back after having had them stolen by government.” Or, “Despite the $5 billion in claims, governments in Oregon actually have not paid a dime to compensate aggrieved landowners, instead giving them back the rights they had when they bought their property.” Or, “Oregon locked all but 4 percent of the total state land in exclusive farm or forest use, taking thousands of property owners’ rights away in the process, so Measure 37 gives them a needed release valve if they want to retire or if their property is not valuable for farming or forestry.” If the questions were framed this way, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that the poll would have produced drastically different, and far more favorable, results.

The most intellectually dishonest part of the poll is that respondents were asked to respond to a misrepresented handful of Measure 37 claims taken completely out of context, a non-representative and miniscule fraction of the almost 3,000 claims that have actually been filed. A large share of these claims are simply for small landowners receiving the ability to build a few houses on their property. Further, in only one case has a landowner actually started to develop their land after filing a successful Measure 37 claim. Many landowners simply filed a claim to get the rights back that they paid for when they bought their property and have no intention of actually developing it.

Lastly, the fact that the poll report fails to include a detailed methodology—such as the actual survey and a description of the sampling methods—is a strong indication of its inherent bias. National survey firms routinely include this information to make the survey results and methods transparent to readers. How are we to tell if the small sample of 405 Oregon voters polled were genuinely selected at random and are representative of the population? Readers have no way to evaluate quality of the data and whether the sample accounts for geography, income, gender, political affiliation, etc. of respondents. If the pollsters have nothing to hide, then why not release their methods?

Voters should not be swayed by false claims about Oregonian’s public sentiment on Measure 37. It’s clear that this is a blatant attempt by those with a vested interest in big government to sour the debate in California, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington and convince voters to reject ballot measures clearly intended to protect their property rights.

This poll reveals just how desperate the opponents of stronger property rights protections are. Since they cannot win the voters hearts and minds in an honest debate, they’ve chosen the time-tested route of dirty politics: confuse the voters through obfuscation and deception.

Leonard Gilroy is a certified planner and policy analyst at the Reason Foundation. He is the author of the study “Analysis of California’s Proposition 90” and an archive of his work is here. Reason’s eminent domain research and commentary is here.