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More education about ballot measures needed

By Staff | May 15, 2009

In the last days of the 2009 session, the Legislature ended its revolt and decided to honor the decision of the voters to use tobacco lawsuit money to fight tobacco addiction. The Legislature justified its temporary rebellion with the argument that the voters didn’t know what they were doing when they voted on the measure.

The irony of its assessment of the electorate’s wisdom is that the Legislature turned right around and proposed for the November 2010 ballot a complex constitutional amendment that would put 30 percent of the state’s oil money into a trust fund, with interest unspent until 2017 and the principal untouched except by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

To vote intelligentlyon this measure, citizens will be required to estimate the state’s fiscal condition for the next eight years, to understand how difficult it is to get a two-thirds vote on any money question, and to consider the wisdom of this sort of long-term investment. That is asking more from the voters than was asked on the tobacco measure.

That being said, the Legislature is right when it comes to some measures. Voters do lack the information necessary to vote intelligently. The constitutional amendment proposed for 2010 will be an excellent case in point.

The dramatic increase in absentee voting over the past 10 years has been helpful. When absentee voters are presented with a ballot issue they don’t understand, they can put the ballot aside and do some research. However, that is not the case with voters who show up at election sites. Many of them end up voting on the basis of the ballot titles, and ballot titles do not explain the implications of their decisions.

The problem of voters making uninformed decisions could be solved by abolishing the initiative and referendum and changing the method used for amending the state constitution. But in a participatory state like North Dakota, these cures would be regarded as worse than the disease. So, rather than wringing our hands, steps should be considered to provide citizens with the information they need on ballot measures.

At one time, the state published and mailed to every taxpayer a “publicity pamphlet” that presented the measures on the ballot. Interested parties were permitted to buy pages in the publication to present their arguments for and against the proposals. It was worth the money, but the publication was eliminated in the 1960s to cut costs. That was a mistake.

Maybe the publicity pamphlet should be brought back. It may cost some money, but that becomes the price of informed voting. Some cheapskates will offer to substitute the pamphlet with cheaper e-mail without appreciating the fact that we still have a considerable number of people who do not have e-mail. Voters need the printed word.

If the Legislature really believes that the state needs a more enlightened citizenry voting on measures, then it ought to resurrect the publicity pamphlet – or devise some other communication effort – to get basic information to the voters.The alternative is to do nothing and complain.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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