In the ideal world, citizens recognize the importance of public issues, are furnished facts on both sides, weigh the merits and then march to the polls brimming with information, ready to decide policy. Last week's D.C. rent-control referendum showed how far short reality comes.
The real winner was confusion.
It wasn't for a lack of words. Over several months The Post has published a string of items on the dispute. In the final week alone, a time when many voters first took notice, The Post ran 257 column inches on the issue -- six stories, two editorials, two columns and a pro and con exchange on the op-ed page.
Yet, for all this, voter turnout was low. True, it was an off-year election, but some voters were turned off by the complexity of the issue, doubts about whether the referendum would increase or decrease the city's rental housing.
Even those who came out were confused. A poll worker reported, "People don't understand it. That's what we've been hearing all day. There has been too little information about it."
The official statement on the ballot was couched in negatives that could confuse even the highest flying legal eagle, yet it was important -- the first significant change in the city's 14- year-old rent control law was at stake. If the referendum, the city's first, failed, about 7,000 to 10,000 units of the city's modest 159,000 unit rental stock would be decontrolled. It passed by a close margin.
But despite the abundant wordage there have been complaints that the whole exercise misled some voters into thinking that all rent control was at risk. Was the present vacancy rate 2.4 or 6 percent of the rental housing supply? Would a successful referendum create new exemptions from rent control or -- as was correct -- would it remove exemptions voted by a split city council last spring? Was this rent control vote, with the whole issue of exemptions, "key," as many voters believed, or was it, as others thought, really much ado about very little?
Perhaps some rent decontrol would encourage landlords to properly maintain rental properties and save them from boarding up or perhaps it would lead to higher rentals and force lower- income tenants out.
Mayor Marion Barry, seven council members, several ministers and a supportive real estate group predicted landlords would respond to monetary incentives, make needed repairs and begin to build more apartments. (Post reporter Arthur Brisbane uncovered a $20,000 real estate fund assembled to help defeat the referendum.)
City Council President David Clarke, five council members and several ministers argued that a "for" vote was the way to avert giving landlords "a blank check to charge anything they want."
The already difficult issue was compounded when the political lines were arrayed; some voting obviously was "follow-the-leader" on each side.
While I recognize The Post devoted much space to the issues, I wonder if more could not have been done to dramatize and simplify. The Metro section has shown imagination in devising graphic and typographical techniques helpful to readers -- for example, side- by-side tables comparing provisions, questions and answers, diagrams, highlights, chronologies, recapitulations, maps, graphs and photo layouts. Such devices could have helped resolve some of the confusion and helped attract interest to an important dispute.
Another complaint: Perhaps the most helpful piece in defining the issues was an Oct. 7 article by Peter Perl -- published a month before the vote when attention was barely awake and printed on a Monday when Post readership is a fourth less than on Sunday. Post city editor Eugene Robinson declined to comment.
Even before the results were in, there were complaints about Post favoritism in coverage. In going back over the articles I find, as is often true when feelings are high and careful reading low, that pro and con comments in the news columns in the final week -- the critical one -- were about even. Partisans on this, as on other furious controversies, tend to point out space given to the other side and fail to acknowledge the inches on their side.
The plea is described as fairness, but is spelled favoritism.