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I know, I tend to write a lot about the city’s zoning code. But hey, people are passionate about this stuff—-enough so that they go to great lengths to rig poll results on the subject.

Last week, the 12,956-member Cleveland Park listserv’s moderators posted a poll about a hypothetical change to the neighborhood’s zoning. “The current zoning overlay,” the poll asked, “has certain restrictions in it, including a limitation on the number of restaurants in Cleveland Park. Do you favor or oppose changing the restriction that limits restaurants in Cleveland Park along Connecticut Avenue to 25 percent of ‘linear street frontage’?”

The moderators typically keep their polls open for a week, but they shut it down early when they detected something strange going on: Someone was trying to game the results.

“Fortunately,” the moderators wrote, “we have the tools to detect when and in what direction the results are being skewed. Over the course of two hours yesterday afternoon, a new dummy account was created about every 5 minutes and each one immediately voted in favor of keeping the restaurant cap.”

Apparently, this isn’t the first time someone’s tried to cheat in a Cleveland Park poll; the same thing happened in 2006 on a poll of Ward 3 D.C. Council candidates.

Skewed or not, the results of the poll are worth examining. When the poll was closed, the tally was:

I support leaving the zoning overlay as is, 108 (34%) I support changing the zoning overlay to allow more restaurants, 199 (62%) I’m undecided, 14 (4%)

But the listserv managers were able to detect when the cheating began. Before that point, the count was:

I support leaving the zoning overlay as is, 83 (28%) I support changing the zoning overlay to allow more restaurants, 198 (67%) I’m undecided, 14 (5%)

I’ll readily admit that I don’t know much about this particular issue. But it fits into the broader debate in Ward 3 about development. Typically, when a hot-button development issue is on the table—-say, oh, a new residential building in Tenleytown without any off-street parking—-the loudest voices belong to the anti-development crowd, while a few meek pro-development folks insists that the silent majority is on their side.

Now, the 12,000-plus people on the Cleveland Park listserv may not be fully representative of the broader neighborhood population, but the vote was more than tw0-to-one in favor of the pro-development position (before the dummy votes starting coming in). And listserv moderator Bill Adler—-who himself supports the revision to the zoning overlay—-says that’s not unusual.

“We’ve conducted a number of polls over the years on development issues, including the Giant supermarket, removing the service lane on Connecticut Avenue between Macomb and Ordway Streets and Cosi,” Adler says in an email. “The poll results definitely show that Cleveland Park Listserv membership favors development—-or at least on these issues, by at least a 2 to 1 margin. On the Giant supermarket debate, Cleveland Park’s longest running show, now over, the margin was nearly 5 to 1 in favor of the Giant. There hasn’t been a single development or growth related issued on which our poll results have favored a more conservative ‘don’t build it’ view.”

Adler believes the vote here does reflect the presence of a “silent majority” that might not show up to all the contentious ANC meetings.

“Many of our list members are young, busy with work, have little kids or are otherwise unable to attend community meetings where a small number of neighbors, usually a few dozen at most, gather to vote and express their views,” he says.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery