On Nov. 6, nearly 7,000 voters went to one of the four South Burlington voting stations to cast their mid-term vote, preceded by some 2,700 “early voters” who had already cast their ballots at City Hall or by mail. If you were among the Election Day voters, you may recall being approached by one of our 35 student interviewers from either Saint Michael’s or South Burlington High School to be asked for an interview about various city issues. Willing participants were asked 50 questions that came from a research class taught by Professor of Sociology Vince Bolduc of Saint Michael’s College, with the invaluable suggestions of City Planner Paul Conner, who joined the class several times to provide local perspective. Students arrived at their respective voting station at 7 a.m. and cycled throughout the day until the last vote was cast 12 hours later.
No survey is perfect, including this one. The biggest problem with exit polls is that they cannot capture the opinions of non-voters, nor that of the increasingly important early voters. In all, 431 voters took part in this survey, virtually all of whom voted only on Election Day. This is the first of several articles summarizing the results. Whenever possible, comparisons will be made to earlier polls conducted in other years.
South Burlington has several distinctive traits that we also saw captured in our research. For example, South Burlington’s proportion of citizens holding a bachelor’s degree is significantly higher than both the Vermont average and the national average. In South Burlington, the Census’ American Fact Finder (2017) estimates that 55 percent of our adults hold a bachelor’s degree compared to the state average of 37 percent and 31 percent for the nation as a whole. Among our exit poll voters, 75 percent told us they held the degree. This is very high, but not quite so surprising when we recall that college graduates vote at a higher rate than others.
A similar phenomenon applies to older voters. Our poll found that 29 percent of our voters were 65 or older, while the Census estimates that 24 percent of South Burlington’s voting age population is in that category, compared to just 22 percent for Vermont and 19 percent for the U.S. As with the college educated, older adults are more likely to vote than younger persons. South Burlington is an aging community, now home to 3,770 persons age 65 or older. The city is also more ethnically diverse than the state, but far less than the nation.
One other voter trait worth mentioning is that our city voters appear to be considerably more “liberal” than a cross section of Vermonters or that of the nation at large. When asked “Do you usually think of yourself as a conservative, a liberal, an independent, or something else?” almost half of our voters (47 percent) selected the “liberal” label compared to just 11 percent who think of themselves as “conservatives.” Twenty-eight percent chose “independent” and 13 percent chose “something else.” These self-identifications are virtually identical to the figures we received in the 2016 Exit Poll, when only 20 percent of South Burlington voters cast their vote for President Trump.
On Local Issues
This notably liberal voter predisposition is an important factor in understanding city voters and the overall priorities of the community. It is one of the characteristics that makes our city distinctive from most American communities and it influences our choices of elected officials, many ballot items and our priorities on a range of community issues which are not subject to direct vote.
There is fairly wide agreement and an apparent absence of ideological motivation on the highest community priorities that voters identified, an inviable level of consensus which seems to be rare in the polarized national political environment of today. When we asked voters to rate how important each of eight issues were, we were able to rank their priorities by the proportion who selected the “very important” option. As we can see from the accompanying chart, 90 percent of voters assign the highest importance to “maintaining quality schools” and the provision of quality public services such as “recreation, fire, ambulance, police etc.” (During the actual interviews, the options were presented in a random order.)
There were a number of items, however, in which political identification influenced voter responses. For example, on the item about how important it would be to “attract more businesses to South Burlington” we found that 70 percent of self-identified conservatives said that it was “very important” compared to only 34 percent of liberals. In contrast, support for “building more affordable housing” was deemed “very important” to 74 percent of liberals and only 47 percent of conservatives. These spreads were unusually wide and were most frequently manifest when the issue involved financial priorities.
The two top priorities in this series of questions were also ranked at the top of the chart in the exit polls we conducted in 2012 and 2016. “Balancing the city budget” was also rated in the third position on those other polls, but the strength of the priority has fallen over the past six years. In 2012, 83 percent said it was “very important.” It fell to 78 percent in 2016, and now is 70 percent. A far bigger change is seen in the movement of “building more affordable and entry level housing,” from a bottom priority with just 37 percent rating it as “very important” in 2012 to 63 percent in 2016 and 66 percent in 2018. The importance of both “attracting new businesses” and “maintaining the existing tax rate” have slipped slightly from 50 percent saying “very important” in 2012 to their present positions or 44 percent and 42 percent respectively.
A second device that we used to gauge community priorities was to ask voters if they were sufficiently committed to a project to be willing to open their wallets to support it. The exact phrasing is as follows: “Here is a hypothetical question. We are trying to get an idea about whether or not voters would support several new city initiatives. So hypothetically, would you be willing to pay an extra $100 in property taxes per year to support the following. Keep in mind that even renters pay for this indirectly.”
Once again, the quality of the schools enjoys extremely wide support (84 percent “yes”), but here too “affordable and entry level housing” garners a great deal of support (80 percent). Two new items drew a solid majority of citizens hypothetically prepared to support it with their tax dollars—increasing renewable energy sources and tackling climate change. Support for tackling climate change was greater among women (86 percent) than men (77 percent). Self-described liberals also were much more supportive of this issues (91 percent) than were conservatives at 33 percent. In this case, “independents” were much closer to the liberal position (83 percent) than the conservative position.
Eighty percent of voters also expressed willingness to financially support “permanently preserving more open and undeveloped in our city.” The three lowest items — on improving parks, a new recreational center, and attracting more businesses — all also drew majority agreement, but a lower level.
As referenced above, the self-defined liberal orientation of our voters influences many aspects of life in our community, and in this series of questions it is notable that six of these eight items in the table below received statistically different responses from people who usually think of themselves as liberals than those who usually think of themselves as conservatives. Were this table calculated only for self-defined conservatives, the ranking would be quite different, as would the overall willingness to pay $100 more in taxes for most of the items.
The next article in this series will focus on voter perception of progress on various existing projects as expressed in the Comprehensive Plan, as well as their opinions of city growth and the preservation of open space.
Vince Bolduc has been a resident of South Burlington and Professor of Sociology at Saint Michael’s College since 1974. He has conducted more than 50 surveys, both local and statewide, and retired three weeks ago.