Passage of the proposed one-penny regional sales tax in late July is critically important to the economic well-being of metro Atlanta and Georgia. However, even those high stakes don’t justify the unfair description that voters will see printed on the July ballot, which claims that the proposal “provides for local transportation projects to create jobs and reduce traffic congestion with citizen oversight.”
Opponents of the transportation tax, including the tea-party movement, have criticized that wording as “marketing language” that “improperly promotes a ballot question.” And they’re absolutely right. That’s exactly what it does.
Unfortunately, under longstanding Georgia law and court rulings, state officials are given a great deal of discretion in how ballot questions and proposed constitutional amendments can be worded.
In a 1974 case, Sears v. State, the Supreme Court of Georgia tried to warn the Legislature against the temptation “to interject its own value judgments concerning the amendments into the ballot language and thus to propagandize the voters in the very voting booth, in denigration of the integrity of the ballot.”
The justices also ruled that in the case they had under review, the Legislature had indeed yielded to that temptation. But they refused to rule that such ballot-box propagandizing was illegal or unconstitutional. The standard they set instead required that the wording of a ballot question must merely “be adequate to enable the voters to ascertain on which amendment they are voting.”
In other words, if the wording is accurate enough to let voters distinguish which question they’re being asked to decide, that’s good enough. The courts want nothing to do with determining whether the wording is fair.
Given that history, any legal challenge to the ballot wording is likely to be difficult. Georgia voters instead are forced to rely on the sense of fair play among state officials, in this case Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office drafted the preamble.
Even supporters of the T-SPLOST have to admit that the ballot language fails the test of fairness and accuracy and is an attempt to influence the outcome of the election. In a better world, that language would be changed to present a more balanced description of the ballot question, and state law would be changed to require such balanced language in all future elections.
But don’t hold your breath. The power to slant ballot language, however unfair, will not be surrendered easily by those in power.
– Jay Bookman