New Yorkers will get to vote on three proposals to change the state’s Constitution this November. An important question being voted on is a plan to change the way redistricting is done in New York. This past week, the state Board of Elections approved the language of the ballot question that will be put before the voters.
And they have twisted the language in order to help drive New Yorkers to vote “yes.”
Here’s some background on the process. New York law requires that the state Board of Elections develop the ballot language that goes along with a constitutional amendment. Sometimes those amendments are quite technical and need a common sense explanation. The stated reason for the Board’s explanatory language is to make these ballot questions understandable for voters who often have limited information on the issue.
However, the law is weak – there is no requirement that the Board’s ballot language must be unbiased; there is no requirement that the public have a meaningful opportunity to comment on the drafted ballot language; and there is no place where the public can go to get unbiased information on the potential benefits and costs of the proposal.
The public saw the impact of those weaknesses of current law during last year’s vote allowing casinos in New York. Last year, the Board – with reported pressure from the governor’s office – advanced ballot language that was skewed toward supporting the casino amendment. The Board offered language that described the purported benefits of the casino amendment even though no such benefits existed in the constitutional amendment. The language stated that the creation of casinos in New York would help lower property taxes, increase school aid and create jobs, even though there was nothing in the amendment that said such things.
The state Board of Elections on Friday approved the language of a constitutional amendment creating a new redistricting process, which voters will decide on in the fall. Redistricting is conducted every 10 years, with the next round starting after the 2020 Census.
In addition to using language that surely will be difficult to understand to most voters (the Board’s summary of the question contains 155 words), the Board approved ballot proposal language that inaccurately describes the proposed Redistricting Commission as "independent," a gross mischaracterization of a panel to be chosen by self-interested legislative leaders.
How the Board came to the conclusion that the proposed Commission would be independent is anyone’s guess. The Legislature chooses the Commission members, the Legislature still makes the ultimate decision on the Commission's districting plan, and if they don't like it, the Legislature can reject the Commission's plan and draw their own lines.
As the public saw last year with the Board's casino ballot language, once again the ballot language has been "gamed" to drive voters to support the question.
The Board of Elections must make clarity, concision and neutrality its watchwords and guide stars when drafting constitutional amendment ballot language. Language that tends to incline New Yorkers to approve a government-supported proposal undermines voters' constitutional role as the final arbiters of whether the state's basic charter should be revised. Last week, the Board failed to meet those standards.
So what should be done? The state Board of Elections should hold public hearings to allow for public comment on the proposed question’s language. Also, the Legislature's Elections Committees should hold public hearings for public comment. In both cases, those hearings must be held within a week, in order to allow for changes.
In addition, the governor and the Legislature should change state law to make it clear that ballot questions must be drafted in a comprehensible manner and that there is a strict prohibition on twisting the language to one side’s advantage. That is the least the public deserves.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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