Every year, ballots across the United States include questions on everything from whether to install a public swimming pool to whether citizens should pay for their plastic bags. But what happens if the ballot question is worded incorrectly? Or if the language translation is just a little bit off?
Every year, in communities and districts across the country, voters are victims of ballot fails. Here are some of our favorites.
In 2012, the Santa Clara Water District submitted a 77 word summary for a $548 million tax increase to election officials. But there was a problem: the word limit for ballot measures is 75 words. The district held a board meeting to approve a new version without enough publicity to meet requirements of California’s open meeting law, bringing on a threat form the Silicon Valley Taxpayers’ Association to sue unless the district pulled the measure off the ballot. Ultimately, the “Safe, Clean Water Program” was able to move forward onto the ballot but not without criticism in the community.
In Boulder, Colorado, the city clerk invalidated nearly 6,000 signatures supporting a ballot measure that would ask voters to limit City Council members to three terms because of a “formatting error” in 2016. While signatures were still visible on petitions, the city clerk could not legally to grant exceptions from mistakes that resulted from the petition change from “portrait to landscape (page formatting).”
Modesto City Schools in California accidentally disenfranchised thousands of voters in their efforts to get Measure F, a measure that asked voters whether the city should amend its charter so the school district could change how it elects board members. The measure was supposed to go to all voters in the district and those outside the city, but the City Clerk changed the paperwork submitted to the election office, resulting in the disenfranchisement of 24,000 voters. It reportedly cost significantly more to put the measure on the ballot a second time at upwards of $169,500.
On the Spanish language ballot in Maricopa County, Arizona, which went out to more than 1.3 million households in 2016, county officials listed the wrong title for Proposition 124 that proposes changes to the state’s public-safety pension system. This is not the first mistake for the county on their Spanish language ballots: they made three mistakes in their Spanish elections materials in 2012.
Just last year, Los Angeles County, one of the largest counties in the United States, listed the candidates for the 34th Congressional District in the wrong order on some number of Korean-language sample ballots. Initially, election officials didn’t know how widespread the problem was, and sent out corrected sample ballots to all 8,251 voters in the district who received the Korean-language ballots in 2017. This obviously cost the county a significant amount of taxpayer money, but sending out ballots to everyone was a more time and cost-effective measure than checking every Korean-language ballot.
In Portland, Maine, petitions for two citizen initiatives were submitted late for the fall ballot, due perhaps to a mixup over when the August deadline actually was scheduled. Citizens rallied against the city in two protests at City Hall against their actions which might have been made invalid by the Maine Constitution. Supporters were rallying against City Hall for a clear decision on their petition’s inclusion or exclusion because they reportedly didn’t want to “win and have to win again.” Portland’s city council had to hold a hearing in the September before the November 7, 2011 election to determine whether or not to include the measures on the ballot. They ultimately voted to include the measures on the November ballot.
Lessons to Learn
Ballot measures can and will go wrong if they are not carefully considered, planned and executed. While voters have a responsibility to educate themselves on every ballot measure and question, county and city clerks have a huge task to make sure everything goes smoothly on and after Election Day. Additionally, voters should always consider what the ballot question is asking, what a yes and means, who lobbied to get the question on the ballot, and who asked the question in the first place?
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By Mikala Cohen, BallotReady Blog Intern