Senate approves bill for plain-language ‘explainer’ on complicated ballot issues

03/25/2013 6:42 PM

08/08/2014 10:15 AM

Thirteen months after Wichitans voted on an incomprehensibly worded hotel-tax referendum, a proposal to provide voters with plain-language explanations of confusing ballot questions is on the verge of becoming a state law.

The state Senate on Monday gave its initial approval to House Bill 2162, which would allow county election officials to request that a county or state official write an “explainer” when the language used in a ballot measure is confusing or too legalistic for voters to easily understand.

“If they (election officials) feel like an explainer needs to be done, they can request it; if they don’t, they don’t need to,” said Sen. Kay Wolf, R-Prairie Village, who carried the bill on the floor.

The bill passed on a voice vote, with only a minor grammatical change from the version that earlier cleared the House.

The explainers would not appear on the ballot, but would be posted at all polling places and sent along as an insert with absentee ballots. “It would also be available for public inspection at the county election office and it could be placed on their website if they so determine,” Wolf said.

The issue arose out of voter frustration with the ballot language in a February 2012 Wichita referendum on whether the developer of the Ambassador Hotel downtown should get to keep a portion of the hotel’s future guest-tax revenue.

The tax rebate would have been part of a package of incentives approved by the City Council, 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 language on the ballot question 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amending and repealing Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 213, of the city of Wichita, Kansas, which amended and repealed Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 183 of the city of Wichita which amended and repealed Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 174 of the city of Wichita, Kansas, pertaining to the application of revenues from the transient guest tax’ take effect?”

Election workers were besieged with phone calls and questions about what that meant, but were only allowed to answer “Yes means yes. No means no.”

Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf said he had to write the measure using the legalese to comply with the requirements of the state Constitution and that he could not add any explanatory language.

After voters rejected the hotel subsidy, local lawmakers said they would seek legislative action to help future voters know what they’re voting on.

While they can’t change the Constitution without a statewide election, the lawmakers determined they could pass a law to allow officials to provide extra information on the effects of a “yes” or “no” vote on ballot measures.

HB 2162 has passed the House twice, this year and last, most recently on a vote of 120-4 on Feb. 28.

In the case of measures brought to the ballot by voter petition, the explainer would be written by the district attorney, county attorney or county counsel. The secretary of state would then review the explainer for accuracy and neutrality.

With measures that are put on the ballot by governmental bodies, the secretary of state would write the explainer and the attorney general would review it.

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