In the wake of the narrow but conclusive defeat of Washington state’s I-522 ballot measure that would have mandated labeling of some food products if they contained genetically engineered ingredients, the prevailing analysis is that money bought the election, that if not for a flood of anti-labeling advertising that “Big Food” funneled into the state, consumers would have eagerly supported enactment of the measure.
Is that true? I say no, and here’s why.
The money-bought-the-win analysis, though it obviously has some merit, presumes that the average voter is a dumb, ill-informed, easily swayed creature who soaks up a couple TV spots and then votes whatever way the advertising told them to. I disagree.
For one, in an off-year election, with no presidential race to drive people to the polls, voter turnout tends to be low. Last week, Washington State averaged less than a 40 percent turnout of eligible voters, versus November 2012 when the presidential campaigns pushed turnout to nearly 80 percent of all registered voters.
That means that, as is true in sports, the “casual voter” sits out the off-year elections. So those who do bother to fill out their ballots are generally more informed, more engaged and more knowledgeable about the candidates and the issues.
Furthermore, I can tell you personally that other than the I-522 ballot measure, the ballot for Snohomish County where I live contained nothing else that would get anyone excited. No statewide races. No congressional contests. In fact, there were some 10 “races” for judgeships or positions on the city council or school board that featured candidates running unopposed! You could “vote,” but only for one person.
Thus, not only did I-522 have an very high profile—and a much larger majority of voters in off-year elections actually pay attention to such ballot referenda—there wasn’t much else where you really felt like your vote mattered. The idea that a whole bunch of dumb people got suckered into voting the way Big Money wanted, just because they saw a couple of ads on TV, doesn’t wash.
Confusing, misleading, illogical
Second, as is true of the science itself, genetic modification is a complex, highly technical issue, one that isn’t easy to explain in a sound bite.
That’s why the “Frankenfoods” message is misleading, but so is the idea that people’s grocery bills are automatically going to go up by hundreds of dollars apiece. In my opinion, that complexity is, ironically, the very reason that the GMO labeling initiative failed to be approved: It was so riddled with exceptions, loopholes and exemptions that it made no sense to people.