December 10, 2009 in Opinion

State’s ballot language rules worth imitating


“A powerful agent is the right word,” noted Mark Twain.

He could have said the same about the wrong word – at least when it comes to the titles and descriptions that voters see above initiatives on their ballots.

A few carefully chosen words – right or wrong – can be packed with emotional appeal intended to sell rather than to inform. And they may be all that some voters ever read about complicated measures before voting on them.

After this year’s awkward experience with Proposition 4, the so-called Community Bill of Rights, the Spokane City Council is considering a municipal code amendment that revises how ballot titles are written. The proposal would mimic the statewide system, in which the attorney general has final say over the language of the ballot title.

Under the proposed code amendment, the city attorney would consult with proponents of an initiative petition and possibly offer suggestions that the sponsors could accept or ignore. But when they came back with a ballot title, it would be up to the city attorney to decide if it was clear enough, accurate enough and objective enough to satisfy the law’s criteria for impartiality. If not, he could rewrite it, along with the rest of the descriptive language that goes on the ballot.

Those who were involved in the Proposition 4 battle fear that a city official could be biased against such a measure. That’s true. He could also be biased for it, but the amendment insists that the language be unslanted. When state ballot measures go through the same process, the attorney general’s language can be challenged in court, not only by a measure’s sponsors but also by any citizen.

That’s an effective safeguard.

The municipal code amendment was on Monday’s City Council agenda but was postponed for as long as four months to allow more study. There’s no great rush, so the delay probably isn’t harmful, but the issue isn’t that complicated either. The statewide model provides an ample demonstration of what works, and the city is safe in following it.

The impediment seems to be a matter of post-election distrust, driven in part by the City Council’s unwise insistence on putting two advisory questions on last month’s ballot, clearly to signal council members’ disapproval of Proposition 4. The measure eventually failed by a 3-1 ratio.

No matter who picks the words, the possibility of bias exists. But so does the recourse of appealing to the courts for an arm’s-length resolution. That’s a clear improvement on the current rules.

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