Reform of ballot proposition rules
Legislative gag rule for "direct" initiatives
Formal state legislative votes, resolutions, debates, and speeches about "direct" initiatives should be prohibited. Similar formal actions by other bodies of government officials -- e.g., city councils and county commissions -- should be discouraged or prohibited.
State ballot initiatives are classified as "direct" initiatives and "indirect" initiatives (initiatives are also classified as statutory or constitutional). A "direct" initiative is supposed to go directly on the ballot and an "indirect" initiative goes through the legislature first. A "direct" initiative should be treated as such.
Official summary or "explanation" of a proposition
Official summaries or "explanations" are unfortunately necessary because: (1) many ballot propositions are too long for many people to read entirely; (2) a proposition's language may be hard to understand; and (3) many people are concerned about the potential fiscal impact of the proposition. However, I propose the following rules to help assure neutrality and guard against prejudicing the election:
(1) The official summary should not go on the ballot. The official summary should appear only in an official voter's guide along with pro and con arguments presented by the supporters and opponents of the proposition. An "objective" or "balanced" summary on the ballot is like the "best" butter that the March Hare put in the Mad Hatter's watch in Alice in Wonderland. In California, campaigning within a certain distance of election sites is prohibited, so why should the possibility of campaigning be allowed on the ballot? Also, voters are likely to tie up voting booths while reading and mulling over these official summaries -- this is a particular problem with electronic voting because there are likely to be reductions in the numbers of voting booths because of the great expense of the electronic voting machines.
(2) If there is a controversy or question over the interpretation of a particular provision of the proposition, the summary should just quote the provision and then let the pro and con arguments discuss the different interpretations. An example was the controversy over the meaning of "judicial immunity" in Amendment E's definition of "judge": "Justice, judge, magistrate judge, judge pro tem, and all other persons claiming to be shielded by judicial immunity. "
(3) Speculation concerning the initiative's constitutionality or the possibility of lawsuits should not be allowed in the official summary. Many voters have a knee-jerk dislike for anything that might cost tax money, no matter how minor the cost, and such speculation could be the kiss of death for a proposition that the courts might find to be constitutional if passed. Such speculation belongs in the pro and con arguments in the official voter's guide.
To avoid any possibility of prejudicing the vote, the short title of the ballot initiative (e.g., Proposition 2, Amendment E) should either stand alone or be accompanied by no more than a brief descriptive title of maybe twenty words or less. As discussed above, the official summary should not be on the ballot.
An official voter's guide -- whether printed or online -- should contain the official summaries, the pro and con arguments, and the complete propositions. In California, the printed official voter's guide is set up this way (I don't know about the online versions). In the case of South Dakota, one official online voter's guide contained only the official summaries ("explanations") and the complete propositions and another official online voter's guide contained only the official summaries ("explanations") and the pro and con arguments.
Pro and con arguments in the official voter's guides
At least one rebuttal of the pro and con arguments should be allowed. The California voter's guide allows one rebuttal. The South Dakota voter's guide with the pro and con arguments allows no rebuttals.
To help prevent voters from tying up the voters' booths or stations by reading and mulling over official voter's guides or other election material, voters should be allowed to take only a single sheet of paper (showing voting intentions) into the voters' booths. In order to see that voters are not violating this rule, voters' booths should not be enclosed. Electronic voting screens should have a blinder on each side to ensure privacy.
I think it would be interesting to do a comparative study of the states' ballot proposition rules, using the above suggestions as a guide.
Labels: Voter initiatives