Ken Hare In Depth: Amendment ballot language can mislead

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - On Nov. 6, Alabama voters -- or at least those who take their voting responsibilities seriously -- will make several important decisions on constitutional amendments. There are 11 amendments to be voted on statewide that will be on every ballot, and many counties will have local amendments to decide as well.

But before summarizing the 11 statewide amendments, I offer a warning to voters: The language you will see on the ballot often does not disclose the full impact of the amendment, and sometimes can be misleading.

A local amendment to be voted on by Montgomery County voters is a perfect example of ballot language that is flawed. The local amendment language on the ballot states in full:

"PROPOSED LOCAL AMENDMENT NUMBER ONE (1): Relating to Montgomery County, proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to decrease the terms of office for members elected after ratification of this amendment from six to four years. (Proposed by Act No. 2011-257)"

That's it. Nowhere on the ballot does it explain to what public body those "members" belong. I suspect that lots of Montgomery County voters will read their ballot on election day and come away scratching their heads and wondering just what they voted on.

The amendment would affect only the Montgomery County Board of Education, but there is no way to tell that from the ballot.

Montgomery County elections chief Justin Aday explained to me recently that local election officials realized the confusion this amendment might cause, but he said there was nothing they could do about it.

"We're limited by law to putting the exact language specified in the act on the ballot," Aday said.

For voters who truly want to understand the amendments, the acts passed by the Legislature to put the amendment proposals on the ballot have much more detail.

Those discerning voters who want to read the full language of each of the amendments on the ballot can do so on the Alabama Secretary of State's web page at:

I strongly suggest you read the full act. Go to the site and click on the act number associated with each amendment, That act number is reported below for each of the statewide amendments. Voters also can find sample ballots with the act numbers for local amendments at:

The 11 proposed statewide constitutional amendments are:

Amendment 1 (Act 2011-315): This amendment would extend the state's Forever Wild land preservation program for an additional 20 years. The program uses a portion of the interest from revenues on oil and gas leases to purchase and protect lands for public use. The program was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1992, but it will expire if not extended. The amendment has the support of a wide spectrum of public groups, including hunters, fishermen, conservation groups, the League of Women Voters, and the Business Council of Alabama.

(I addressed Amendment 1 in detail in an earlier column. You can see it HERE.)

Amendment 2 (Act 2012-567): This would allow the state to sell additional bonds as existing bonds are paid off to generate revenue to for incentives to industries to build or expand plants in Alabama. Such bonds are currently capped at $750 million, and the cap would remain. But the amendment would allow the state to sell new bonds as old ones are retired, and would allow the state to refinance existing debt to take advantage if interest rates improve.

Gov. Robert Bentley strongly supports this amendment, which would generate revenue to use in recruiting jobs to the state.

Amendment 3 (Act 2011-316): This amendment would make the small Baldwin County community of Stockton a landmark district to protect it against annexation from a nearby town. If approved, it would become one of those scores  of amendments with only a purely local effect that are voted on statewide.

Amendment 4 (Act 2011-353): This would remove some of the segregationist language from the Alabama Constitution about separating schools by race and paying poll taxes. Court rulings long ago made the language moot, but proponents say it should be removed anyway.      However, opponents of the amendment say it also would remove language that requires the state to provide access to a public education for Alabama children.

Amendment 5 (Act 2011-543): This amendment would OK the transfer of assets and liabilities from the Prichard Water Works to the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System. This is another amendment with only local application.

Amendment 6 (Act 2011-617): This amendment seeks to undercut the federal Affordable Care Act --Obamacare -- by prohibiting any Alabamian from being compelled to participate in any health care plan. This amendment almost certainly would have no effect on a federal issue such as this one, so it most likely will boil down to just a popularity vote for or against the president's health care plan.

Amendment 7 (Act 2011-656): Would require that unions in Alabama could be organized only by secret ballot rather than by employees signing a card. Opponents argue that the state should stay out of union issues, while proponents claim that this amendment would prevent undue pressure being placed on workers to join a union by requiring a secret ballot.

Amendment 8 (Act 2012-269): This would revise the Legislature's pay plan to link a legislator's base compensation to Alabama's median household income. It also would require legislators to file a request for reimbursement for actual expenses in addition to their base pay.

This amendment is in response to taxpayers' vehement reaction to a 61 percent pay increase legislators granted themselves in 2007. Its immediate effect would be to reduce legislative pay by about $8,000 per year. It also would remove an automatic cost-of-living increase legislators receive annually, but would allow legislative pay to go up if the state's median household income increases.

(I addressed Amendment 8 in detail in an earlier column. You can see it HERE.)

Amendment 9 (Act 2012-275): This amendment would update the constitutional article on corporations to reflect the many types of corporations that exist today.

Amendment 10 (Act 2012-276): Would modernize the constitutional article on banks to reflect current banking practices and language.

Amendment 11 (Act 2012-308): An amendment affecting Lawrence County and municipalities in counties bordering Lawrence County by prohibiting any town located entirely outside Lawrence County from imposing any municipal ordinance on a police jurisdiction that extends into Lawrence County.

Of the 11 amendments, it could be argued that three (those with purely local impact) should not be voted on statewide at all. Another, it could be argued, is purely symbolic. But that leaves seven amendments that would have important consequences for the state.

It is crucial that Alabama voters take these issues seriously, study them, and cast their ballots accordingly.

Sadly, that does not always happen. In 2008, for example, an important amendment to create an education rainy day fund was on the ballot. But about 21 percent of those who voted in the presidential election did not bother to vote on this amendment. Consider that only about 67 percent of registered voters on average go to the polls in presidential election years, and that only about 63 percent of those in the state who are of voting age are registered.  That means only about a third of Alabama adults are deciding these key issues.

That's not good enough.


Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site.

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