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Analysis: Politics surround Mo. ballot measures

Monday, July 9, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Should Missouri residents and small businesses be denied access to affordable health care plans?

Most people probably would say no.

Yet a question similar to that could appear before voters on the November statewide ballot.

Republican lawmakers, who referred the measure about President Barack Obama's health care law to the ballot, are hopping mad about the official summary of it prepared by Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. They claim it will bias voters against the measure. And they plan to challenge the summary in court.

It's not the first such controversy. In fact, nearly every ballot measure proposed in Missouri ends up facing a lawsuit alleging the summary written by the secretary of state and the financial estimate prepared by the auditor are unfair and insufficient. Sometimes, judges have agreed.

The politically charged atmosphere raises the question: Is it time to remove the responsibility of summarizing ballot initiatives from the secretary of state -- who is elected under a partisan label -- and transfer the duty to a nonpartisan or bipartisan entity?

There is no clear answer to that. But a little comparative research shows that Missouri's method of handling ballot measures is not the only way.

About half the states allow proposed changes in law to be placed on the ballot by the legislature or by citizen initiatives.

In nearly one-third of those states, ballot titles are submitted by the proponents of the measures, according to figures from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Attorneys general write the ballot title in nearly another third of the states. And the secretary of state writes the title for ballot initiatives in one-fourth of the states. Three states -- Colorado, Michigan and Utah -- use either a bipartisan state board or nonpartisan legislative staff to write ballot titles for initiatives, according to the NCSL data.

One of Missouri's Republican secretary of state candidates, state Rep. Shane Schoeller, wants to change Missouri's method of summarizing ballot measures to more closely resemble those three states. Under his plan, the secretary of state still could propose a summary, but the responsibility of approving ballot titles ultimately would be given to an eight-member bipartisan panel of lawmakers.

The new board would "help hold the secretary of state accountable and keep the politics out of the ballot measures," said Schoeller, of Willard.

But is that really possible?

In Colorado, a board consisting of the secretary of state, attorney general and director of the Office of Legislative Legal Services meets in public sessions to prepare titles for ballot initiatives.

"They're very strict in determining the accuracy of the title and how well it reflects the content of the measure," said Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow who focuses on elections, initiatives and referendums at the Denver-based NCSL.

Yet lawsuits still occasionally challenge the titles prepared for Colorado initiatives, she said.

Schoeller's two Republican rivals in the secretary of state's race -- state Sens. Scott Rupp and Bill Stouffer -- both contend there is no need to change Missouri's process for preparing ballot titles.

"To me, boards and commissions are just more government," said Stouffer, of Napton.

Rupp, of Wentzville, noted that bipartisan panels responsible for drawing legislative districts have historically had trouble reaching a consensus. He added: "We've continually pushed off important government functions on non-elected bureaucrats."

The Republican secretary of state candidates contend the frequent allegations of bias involving Missouri's ballot summaries stem primarily from the person who currently is responsible for writing them. Carnahan, who is not seeking re-election, has insisted she strives for fairness.

"The main issues that come up wouldn't be solved simply by moving the duty of writing ballot language to another spot," said Carnahan spokesman Ryan Hobart. "I still think you'd have people filing lawsuits or doing legal challenges, because that's become such a big part of the process over the years."

Political science professor Jay Dow, of the University of Missouri-Columbia, said Carnahan's summary of the ballot measure about health-insurance exchanges is not the most politically unbiased statement that could have been written. But then again, politics also played a role in the decision by Republican lawmakers to refer the measure to the ballot. And when it comes to initiative petitions, "everybody who gets something on the ballot has a very relatively narrow partisan or political ax to grind," Dow said.

Like many political scientists, Dow is not fond of the initiative process, because it leaves little room for compromise or revision that often occurs in a legislature. But when it comes to summarizing ballot measures, "I'm not sure the Missouri process is any worse than any other," Dow said. "At least if it's the secretary of state, you know who's doing it, who's rewriting it, and you know what the partisan angle is."


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