It’s voting season again: that time of year when people you’ve never heard of send you flyers urging you to vote for them for vice-mayor of Munchkinland while simultaneously flooding the airwaves with slam ads against their fellow candidates. Or just bribing their way into office.
Besides trying to decide who is your least unfavorite candidate for government positions you don’t ever think about except during this time of year, the season brings with it the opportunity for citizens to cast votes for or against propositions and initiatives. These little chunks of potential law are given to the people as a whole to decide upon, rather than being ratified by a state legislature.
Last year in California, we voted on Proposition 37, which was an initiative to label genetically engineered foods. We here at the Knife and Fork Project were in support of Prop 37, and wrote a socratic dialogue covering some of the points of the bill, which supplements our thoughts on genetically modified organisms in general. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass, gaining 48.5 percent of the vote, which was actually a fairly close race considering that the opposition raised almost 5 times more money than the proponents in order to shoot it down. Despite GMO labeling being overwhelmingly supported when both sides of the issue were given a fair presentation, there were too many big companies with deep pockets who would see their business severely hurt to allow a fair presentation to voters.
Monsanto and DuPont alone, who own most of the genetically engineered food market, contributed around $13.5 million dollars — $4.3 million more than the entire Yes on 37 campaign’s funds. When you have so significant an interest in out-shouting the other side, you very well can trade cash for votes. Sadly, this sort of breach of democracy is all too familiar when large businesses decide to influence us Americans.
Here’s the thing: it’s happening again, this year in Washington state. Initiative 522 is very similar to Proposition 37 in that it will add a label to foods which contain genetically modified ingredients. Like Proposition 37, it is specifically designed to be low-overhead and low-cost, and like Proposition 37, it’s the businesses that are trying to out-shout the initiative with abstract statements of fear and confusion. Who would try to oppose this initiative with gorgeous rhetoric like this?
“I-522 is so full of arbitrary special interest exemptions that it would not give consumers a reliable way of knowing which foods contain GE ingredients and which don’t.” (source: http://www.votenoon522.com/)
The top 5 contributors against 522 are all businesses with a special interest in not being transparent about genetically modified organisms: firstly, a consortium of large distributors and grocers, then the top 4 players in genetically modified foods: Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, and Dow. In fact, a month before the vote, they have raised significantly more money to oppose initiative 522 than the supporters of the bill — way more money, in fact, than has ever been poured into opposing a campaign measure in the state of Washington. Clearly, this is again a case of businesses trying to erode confidence in bills which initially are supported by the people so that they can protect their revenue streams.
Why is this relevant to the whole country? What can you do? Well, first of all, if you’re a Washington voter, learn all you can, both for and against, so that you can make an informed decision, and then vote yes regardless of however you made up your mind because we asked you so nicely.
If you’re not a Washington voter, you can still participate by proxy: just as the business interests are not headquartered in Washington but contribute to the campaign, you can help the Yes on 522 initiative by contributing. If donating money isn’t your thing, or you enjoy the thrill of being more directly involved, you can help the Yes on 522 initiative by volunteering as well.
Here’s why your contribution is important: when Proposition 37 was voted on in California, voters on election day actually passed the law. It was only when absentee and late count ballots arrived that the totals shifted to prevent passage of the law.
In general, I believe that voters at the polls are likely to be a bit more engaged in the issues: I don’t have data to back it up, but anecdotally, they are involved just by the process of going into a polling station. They get some some time thinking about what they would vote for, even if it’s just as they’re standing in line. Absentee ballots, on the other hand, are incredibly easy to just check off as a quick gut reaction, sort of the “fill in all C bubbles on the scantron sheet” mentality. This means that the marketing for any particular issue has to be pervasive to reach out and sway people when they put down their check mark. The side in support of the initiative has to focus on marketing to stick in the brains of voters, just as does the side in opposition, and good marketing campaigns require time and money.
When it comes to understanding the influence of marketing on a population, it’s a great thing to have the chance to fit a model onto real data. Marketing is always a very fuzzy thing to measure, but even crude approximations can produce some interesting insights. Let’s model the resources of each side versus the amount of the population they were able to convince during the Proposition 37 vote. Fun!
OK, I’m an engineer, so this sort of thing is fun for me, but don’t worry, I’ve done all the math so you don’t have to. Although the reality of voting is clearly not as straightforward as my model, we don’t have enough data to know how things behave in multiple different alternate realities. We’re just going to find some rough methods to understand what happened in Proposition 37, and to predict how Initiative 522 could unfold.
The Yes on Proposition 37 group raised 9.2 million and achieved about 6.088 million votes. The No on Proposition 37 group raised 46 million and achieved about 6.442 million votes. We can divide the funds by the votes and see that Yes averaged spending $1.51/vote and No averaged spending $7.14 per vote. This alone tells us that the inherent bias for the population was to vote yes — when each side played its cards, it cost between 4 and 5 times as much to change someone’s opinion from yes to no than it would to switch them from no to yes.
Based on the number of votes that needed to be pulled from No to Yes to have the proposition pass (176,828 votes), then we can extrapolate that if Yes had managed to use just $267,186 more funds as effectively as their previous resources — just about a 3 percent increase in their budget — the proposition would have passed. A little support for the Yes cause goes a long way.
Fast forwarding to today, Washington state has 3,900,193 registered voters. This means if all other things were equal and we saw an exact repeat of what happened in Proposition 37, then No on 522 would raise about $14.3 million to get the same proportion of voters as in California — 53 percent, or 2.005 million people. Yes on 522 would raise $2.860 million to get 48.5 percent (1.895 million voters).
What is actually happening so far is that No on 522 has raised $17.2 million vs $4.8 million for Yes on 522, which would lead us to two conclusions: first, this battle has more riding on it than the one in California, because each camp has already spent more per capita to get their message out than they did in California. Second, one might believe that the voting outcome is currently in Yes’ favor: based on our model, at this point, they would seem to have control of 58.4 percent of the vote, whereas No only has 41.5 percent. In other words, if the relative value of each side’s resources maps evenly from California to Washington, then the Yes on 522 camp has the advantage at the moment.
This would discount the fact that, during Proposition 37, much of the money for No on 37 came relatively later in the game: it is easier for a single entity — a large corporation like DuPont or Monsanto — to contribute a sudden influx of support. They just write a check and boom — more commercials.
In contrast, since the supporting side is made up of many more entities contributing less money, the funds in support tend to be contributed in a more gradual ramp-up. If no more money is contributed to Yes on 522, then an additional contribution of 9.893 million towards No on 522 would even the game. For businesses the size of those opposing the bill, that’s couch change. That’s how much Monsanto alone made in profit – not earnings, but straight, post-expenses profit — every day in 2013 so far.
Where we stand now, it wouldn’t even cost a day’s profit for Monsanto alone buy this election.
I’m going to run just one more numbers game by you guys, one that has been bugging me since the early days of Proposition 37. Hang tight with me.
One of the biggest claims in Proposition 37 was that the cost of food would go up. Of course, introducing more labeling laws will increase the cost of food for everyone, and the cost of regulating the law will increase taxes by a lot. Or will it?
These bills have actually been designed to have the lowest tax load possible while still being regulated. In California, the Secretary of State’s office estimated that regulatory costs would sit at about a million dollars. Now, that seems like a lot, but the population of California was, in 2012 according to the Census Bureau, 38,041,430, That means that the annual regulatory overhead per person at the time of implementation would be, say, around the price of…
In Proposition 37, No on 37 claimed that annual food costs would go up by $400 per family of 4. Just doing the math, 100 dollars per person in California would result in a staggering increase of the cost of food by 3.8 trillion dollars…
Now, as a person of science, when someone tells me that something as innocuous as adding a label on a package — something that food companies do all the time, and therefore can do for free as part of their next packaging cycle – is going to cost as much as an entire tourism-rich archipelago nation makes in a year, I view that as suspicious, if not outright BS.
As extreme as these arguments are, they appeared to work in California, so they’re doing it again, except this time the amount is $490 per Washingtonian. What do we have against reasonable numbers in these election arguments?
The numbers really shed some light on this political game. In California, the same companies that told us that Agent Orange was an innocuous herbicide were able to tell us that their corn, which is registered as an insecticide – yep, the corn itself – is innocuous and should be fed to the consumer with no warning, and they did this with some crazy numbers. 5 times the spending to tell us that a simple label will cost as much as a country.
If we are to see GMOs labeled in the United States, as they are in virtually every other first world country, it is imperative that we not lose Initiative 522 in Washington. One legislative loss in California was damaging enough, but two consecutive losses will likely spell the end of any legal labeling of genetically modified foods. As your dollar is worth four and three quarters times more in supporting the initiative than large agrobusiness’ dollar, if you have the impulse to support the labeling of genetically modified foods, do it. Your contribution really can make the difference.