Legislature may still take action on confusing ballot measures

TOPEKA — A House-Senate conference committee could breathe new life into a Wichita-inspired proposal to help voters understand ballot measures they vote on.

Members of the House Elections Committee asked their Senate counterparts to consider adding language to a bill to allow officials to provide an explanation when it’s not clear to voters what a particular ballot measure would do.

Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe and chairman of the House Elections Committee, said the proposal has “maybe a 50-50 shot” of getting passed this year and if not, it will definitely come up again at next year’s session.

The issue arose out of voter frustration over a Feb. 28 Wichita referendum where voters rescinded a tax incentive the City Council had granted to developers of the Ambassador Hotel project downtown.

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amending and repealing Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 213, of the city of Wichita, Kansas, which amended and repealed Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 183 of the city of Wichita which amended and repealed Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 174 of the city of Wichita, Kansas, pertaining to the application of revenues from the transient guest tax’ take effect?”

“This thing was not written in English,” Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, told the conference committee today. “I don’t think that could be called English, even though there were English words there.”

A “yes” vote favored the hotel subsidy, while a “no” vote was to rescind it. Voters complained that it was impossible to tell that from the ballot language, but those who asked the county election office for clarification could only be told “yes means yes and no means no.”

The ballot language that was used followed the requirements laid down in the state Constitution, officials said.

Earlier this year, the House passed an amendment to allow election officials to request that a plain-language “explainer” be prepared if they found a ballot measure to be confusing.

In local elections, the explainer would be written by the county or district attorney, and reviewed by the secretary of state or the attorney general, to ensure that the wording didn’t favor either side in the election.

The Senate has not acted on the House amendment, which was part of a larger bill.

In an effort to revive the proposal, Schwab asked senators on the conference committee to talk to their leaders and to Sedgwick County senators about the possibility of adding it to House Substitute for Senate Bill 129, a catch-all elections bill that the committee is working on.

The proposal has three solid votes on the conference committee: Schwab, Goico and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita.

Rep. Ann Mah, D-Topeka, opposes the proposal. She said she’s worried that explainers could be written to sway voters for or against a ballot measure, potentially creating a situation where “whoever writes the explainer wins.”

The potential swing votes on the six-member conference committee include Sens. Terrie Huntington, R-Fairway, and Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka.

Both agreed that something has to be done about confusing ballot measures, but they weren’t sure if the House’s solution, which hadn’t been heard in the Senate, is the right one.

“The concept is good, it’s just not fleshed out enough,” Schmidt said.

After reading the Wichita ballot measure, Huntington, the chairwoman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, acknowledged that it was not understandable.

“We’ll just see what we can do,” she said.

Other significant provisions in SB 129 include:

– Allowing members of native American tribes to use tribal identification to comply with the voter ID law passed last year.

– Raising the limit on individual contributions to state Board of Education candidates from $500 to $1,000.