An upcoming August vote on Seattle Referendum 1 will spur a war of words on the downtown tunnel. Legally speaking, the vote doesn't mean much. The City Council is still expected to proceed with the project.

VOTERS paying only half attention to an August vote on a Seattle referendum, a measure related to the downtown tunnel, are in for a summertime headache: The vote is not all it is cracked up to be.

King County Superior Court Judge Laura Gene Middaugh served the public a plate of goulash. She ruled that one part of lengthy agreements between the city and state — verbiage about how the council will finalize agreements with the state — is referable to voters. Primary participants will be asked only if they approve of the way the City Council is proceeding.

Both proponents and opponents of the deep-bore tunnel replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct will claim victory if the confusing referendum goes their way. The vote is partly a test of which side has more resonance with the public.

But in recent legal maneuverings, voters were given clear warning in writing that this is not an up-or-down decision on a tunnel. The explanatory statement that will appear in the voters’ guide begins: “This ballot measure will neither approve nor reject the deep-bore tunnel as an alternative to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.”

The statement further says if voters approve the referendum, that part of the agreement between the city and state will become law and the council can move beyond preliminary design phase without further action.

If voters reject it, however, that section will not become law. The council would have to enact another ordinance, subject to a likely veto and equally likely referendum. In other words, more delay.

In the strange politics of the tunnel, only two of five council members, Bruce Harrell and Jean Godden, have anti-tunnel opponents this year. And only one of the opponents is very heavily focused on the tunnel.

Both incumbents voted for tunnel agreements and to override the mayor’s veto. It is unlikely either would flip-flop after the primary. Even if one had a change of heart, the council still would have sufficient votes to proceed with a new ordinance and override of the mayor.

As the campaign begins, the legitimate concern is that voters think — or will be told or spun to believe — the election means more than it does. The vote on the tunnel is a Rorschach test. People will see what they want but the overall legal effect is limited.