Del. Ken Plum: Bumper Sticker Politics

Del. Ken Plum/File photoThis is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum, who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

Experts on communications in political campaigns advise that a message needs to be expressed in a matter of seconds — not minutes — if it is to be effective. The best political message should be able to be printed on a bumper sticker.

In a world of complexities and over-loaded communications channels, only the simply-stated message stands a chance of getting through to voters.

Simple messages about complex issues can be misleading and can lead to bad policies. About a million dollars was spent in the most recent cycle to convince voters that certain candidates were part of a plan to put $17 tolls on I-66.

In this instance, voters saw through the falsehoods and re-elected Delegate Kathleen Murphy and elected Jennifer Boysko to the House of Delegates. Republican incumbents who jumped on “no $17 tolls” won re-election, but all incumbents in both parties were re-elected.

The damage done with this campaign message is that it is likely to take off the table a reasonable alternative that could be considered to relieve the massive traffic congestion on I-66. The fact of the matter is that there are $17 tolls on the express lanes on I-95, but they are only imposed as they were proposed for I-66 as part of traffic demand management to keep people off the roads during the worst of the congestion.

What the plan would have done was to allow single-occupant vehicles on I-66 during the morning commute time for a lesser toll that would reduce congestion on other streets and generate funds for improvements in the corridor. The proposal was developed by VDOT and had been discussed extensively with the community.

To listen to the campaign rhetoric one could be led to believe that Democratic candidates had proposed it and every driver would have to pay it. Interestingly, those who ran on the no tolls issue did not offer any alternatives for relieving traffic congestion.

This, of course, is not the first time that simple messages have been used to confuse and mislead voters in Virginia elections. Unfortunately, some of the messages of the past have won elections but with disastrous policy outcomes.

The clever “no car tax” slogan won the governorship for Jim Gilmore many years ago, but the policy impact of the state paying part of the local taxes for persons with the biggest cars cost the state nearly a billion dollars every year since that campaign. The car tax got too high in some suburban communities that faced the expenses of growing school populations and other services, but under the Dillon Rule they had no other options for raising revenue.

The Gilmore proposal had the policy effect of taking from the poor and giving to the rich. The state’s share of school funding went down because of the gimmick to end the car tax. It was a simple message to a complex problem that led to unfortunate results.

The campaign to “end parole” that got George Allen elected has led to jails and prisons being overcrowded with persons who should have alternatives to incarceration. Somehow “use tolling to ease traffic,” “reform the tax structure,” or “reform parole” did not have the same ring to them as the bumper-sticker messages that win elections but can lead to unfortunate consequences.

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