This is the last of three articles summarizing the responses of 431 voters as they left their South Burlington polling stations on Nov. 6, 2018. The survey was part of a research project conducted by the author’s Sociology class at Saint Michael’s College. Thirty-five students, including a number from South Burlington High School, conducted the 10-15 minute interviews. It is the fourth South Burlington survey that we have undertaken since 1992.
As cautioned in the first two articles, exit polls can only represent registered voters who show up on Election Day, so non-voters cannot be represented in these finding. Our respondents mirrored many of the same demographics as are found in the larger community, but no guarantee is made that the sample perfectly represents the entire population.
See earlier articles in this series for more methodological detail.
The first part of this article examines voter opinions of the public schools and then turns to voter participation in various community activities.
Our data in this latest of three exit polls has shown consistently high support for our public schools. At least 90 percent of voters in the exit polls of 2012, 2016 and 2018 rated “maintaining quality schools” as a “very important” priority for the city. On our list of eight items, the rating for schools is either at the top position or tied for the top position. The graph depicts the ratings for five of these eight items over the three time periods. The greatest change can be seen in the changing priority that voters express towards “helping to build more affordable and entry level housing,” from 37 percent calling this a “very important” priority just six years ago to 66 percent in the past election. This may be because this issue has been in the news with increasing frequency and the city now has an active Affordable Housing Committee.
To further measure support for the public schools, voters were asked “hypothetically, would you be willing to pay an extra $100 in property taxes to improve our public schools?” An impressive 84 percent were willing to do so. This level of support is equal to another item which asked about a hypothetical $100 tax increase for “renewable energy sources in the city.”
Voters were also asked how they would rate the progress over the past two or three years on seven goals formally set by the city’s Comprehensive Plan, one of which was the “effectiveness of city schools at serving the K-12 population.” The options were “excellent,” “very good,” “fair,” “poor” or “don’t know.” Here too, the schools received more top ratings than any other item with 26 percent of voters selecting the “excellent” rating. This was the only item that broke double digits and far ahead of the goals of more affordable housing, better walking/biking trails, reducing energy consumption and building a sense of community. (All percentages include the “don’t know” option.)
Comparisons by sub-group found that voters under age 35 gave less positive ratings to the schools (only 13 percent said “excellent”) than older voters (29 percent) but younger voters were more willing to be taxed an extra $100 for better schools. Likewise, homeowners were more generous in the ratings of the schools, but were less likely to be willing to up their taxes to increase the quality of the schools. Residents from the Southeast Quadrant were also the most likely to give an “excellent” rating to the schools, while those in the Chamberlin and Kennedy Drive precincts assigned the lowest proportion of the “excellent” ratings.
At the suggestion of representatives of the schools, we asked voters if they could give us “a few words describing the most important skills that our young people should develop before they graduate.” Of the 334 responses that we received, the most common words or phrases were “communication skills,” “critical thinking,” “literacy,” “writing skills,” “reading,” and “science and math.”
The last questions of the exit poll asked voters if they had participated in four city sponsored activities in the past six months or year. As can be seen below, the most common form of engagement was visiting a city park, with more than four out of five voters having done so. Use of the library was the second most common activity, followed by “Bikes and Bites or the South Burlington Night Out.” The least popular city function was attendance at “...any of the meetings of the city council, planning commission, development review board or school board.” The exact numbers appear in the accompanying graph.
Experienced social researchers have learned that respondents tend to exaggerate the self-reporting of behaviors that are thought to be socially desirable. Voting, reading a book, and attendance at religious services are good examples. The use of a library is another classic example, with more people claiming to go to the library than is documented when librarians actually count patrons coming through the doors. Some of the other activities that we asked about likely suffer from the same over-estimates. For instance, widely held norms of good citizenship encourage the value of periodically attending city meetings. When such social encouragements exist, self-estimates are often somewhat overstated.
That caveat acknowledged, inflated estimates may be slightly less among our sample of 431 respondents, all of whom were among the 64 percent of the eligible voters who actually cast their ballots in this time honored expression of civic engagement. Perhaps these voters — who were willing to stand for 10 minutes in unpleasant weather to take a voluntary survey — are also the most likely to participate in the activities depicted in the graph.
Our search for demographic patterns among voters who participated in these activities revealed a number of notable trends:
• Among the 25 percent of voters who reported attendance at a city meeting, the rate was much higher for homeowners (32 percent percent) than renters (9 percent). The attendance rate also increased directly with age, with the youngest age groups having the lowest rates and the oldest age group having the highest—9 percent to 39 percent respectively.
• Visiting a city park, however, showed the highest popularity among voters in the middle years of 30 to 64 (over 93 percent of whom said they had visited in the past year) and the lowest rates among the population over 65 (71 percent).
• Eighty-three percent of those who visited a city park reported that they did so “for a nature walk or to go to the beach.” “Visiting a playground” was selected by 43 percent of park visitors, 42 percent said they went to “walk a dog” and 37 percent went to participate in a “sport such as baseball, tennis, or hockey.”
• Dog walking in a city park was more common for men than women, but there were also big differences by precinct. Fifty-four percent of park attendees in the Chamberlin district use a city park for that reason, 43 percent in the Orchard district, 34 percent in the Southeast Quadrant, and only 21 percent in the Kennedy Drive district.
Library use in the past year revealed many statistically significant differences. Women are heavier users than men (62 percent to 47 percent), as were homeowners compared to renters (59 percent to 39 percent). Use rates also climbed steadily as educational levels increased (from 32 percent at the lowest level to 65 percent for those with graduate credentials.) Those over the age of 65 had the highest rates of use. There were also significant differences in use patterns by voter precinct. In the Orchard district, 63 percent of voters told us that they used the library in the past year. It was 61 percent in the Southeast Quadrant, but only 45 percent in the Chamberlin district, and 43 percent in the Kennedy Drive district.
Finally, of the 33 percent of voters who told us that they attended “Bikes and Bites,” homeowners and those with higher levels of education were the most common participants, as were those in the middle of the age distribution. The differences by precinct were quite sharp. In the Southeast Quadrant, 58 percent said that they attended this event at least once in the last six months, compared to 34 percent from the Orchard district, 22 percent for those in the Chamberlin district, and just 20 percent for those in the Kennedy Drive district.
In closing, we give heartfelt thanks to the student volunteers who did the interviewing and to Saint Michael’s College for its various forms of support. We also thank City Planner Paul Conner for his taking the time to orient our students to the city as well as his invaluable advice in the construction of the questionnaire.
And finally, we owe a special debt of gratitude to The Other Paper for their generosity in allowing us to disseminate these results. As newspapers are under threat everywhere, we are fortunate that our community has such a vital resource.
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 last month. He can be reached at email@example.com.