Kansas bill would allow officials to explain ballot items in ‘plain English’

03/19/2012 9:41 PM

08/08/2014 10:09 AM

Frustrated with an incomprehensible ballot question in a recent Wichita election, state representatives on Monday amended a bill to allow local officials to provide voters with a plain-language explanation of what they’re voting on.

On local ballot measures, the amendment would empower election commissioners to ask a district or county attorney to write a neutral explanation to give to voters, saying what a “yes” or “no” vote would mean when they go to the polls.

“I think this is a service to the voters,” said Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, who carried the amendment on the House floor. “Frankly, I feel sorry for the voters … having to depend on the media to explain it to them, or biased sources.

“They’re certainly not going to understand it from reading it at the poll site,” he added.

The issue arose out of voter frustration with the ballot language in a Feb. 28 Wichita referendum. The ballot question was over whether the city should allow developers of the Ambassador Hotel project downtown to retain a portion of the hotel’s future guest-tax income.

The City Council had authorized the tax rebate as part of an incentives package to the developer, but opponents gathered enough signatures to put it to a public vote.

A “yes” vote meant the developer would get the tax break; a “no” vote meant he wouldn’t.

But the actual ballot language read: “Shall Charter Ordinance 216 entitled: ‘A charter ordinance amending and repealing Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 213, of the city of Wichita, Kansas, which amended and repealed Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 183 of the city of Wichita which amended and repealed Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 174 of the city of Wichita, Kansas, pertaining to the application of revenues from the transient guest tax’ take effect?”

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf said he had to write it that way to comply with the state Constitution and could not add any explanatory language.

Election office and poll workers had to field numerous calls and questions from voters about what the ballot language meant, but were limited to answering: “Yes means yes. No means no.”

Under Howell’s amendment, the ballot language wouldn’t change, but officials could provide a plain-language explanation along with the ballot.

In cases where a county election commissioner finds ballot wording confusing, he or she could ask the local district attorney, county attorney or county counselor to prepare the ballot statement.

The statement would be sent to the secretary of state – and in some cases the attorney general – to ensure that the explainer was a neutral statement of the effect of a proposed measure. The explainer would be sent as a flier with mail ballots and posted at polling places for in-person voters to read.

Rep. Ann Mah, D-Topeka, opposed Howell’s amendment and questioned whether the ballot explainers would truly be neutral.

She said the state Legislature has a history of twisting the wording on its own ballot questions to try to sway the vote.

Typically they read like, “If you vote ‘yes,’ you’re a good American, and if you vote ‘no,’ you’re not a good American,” she said.

She said she thinks it’s better that the advocates on both sides of a ballot measure define the terms of the debate.

Rep. Jo Ann Pottorff, R-Wichita, argued for the amendment.

She said most people who voted on election day in Wichita probably had a pretty good idea of what the yes and no votes meant because of extensive media coverage in the days leading up to the vote. But many advance and mail-ballot voters “had no idea what they were voting on,” she said.

Howell attached his amendment to a bill about campaign finance reporting in school board elections. He said he was pleased after the voice vote went in his favor.

“I think voters want this,” he said. “Let’s fix this mess.”

Contributing: Brent Wistrom of The Eagle

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