Zaino: Ballot initiatives unfair to voters

Rather than asking voters whether the state should

Rather than asking voters whether the state should sell forest preserve land to a company named NYCO Minerals that most people have never heard of, we should be asking how we got to this point. (Credit: Tribune Content Agency / William Brown)

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When voters go to the polls on Tuesday, they will be asked not only to cast ballots for a variety of offices but also for six proposed constitutional amendments. If six seems like a lot in comparison to previous years, it is. The State Legislature passed eight amendments this year, about four times more than normal, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group. Six of those amendments are on the Nov. 5 ballot and two others will be voted on next year.

Ask almost anyone what the six amendments concern and you are likely to hear a bit about adding casinos and, for those who are really attuned to the election, perhaps they will recall that one is about the age of judges. Beyond that, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who knows anything about the other four amendments.

It's not much of a surprise that the proposals aren't widely known because they concern rather mundane issues with which most people are not familiar. And even if voters were well-versed on the ballot initiatives, unless they are directly impacted, they aren't likely to care much about them.


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Four proposed amendments concern expanding the civil service credit for veterans, municipal debt limits, the resolution of a land dispute, and the sale of forest preserve to a company that wants to mine it. Not the sort of things that regularly make front-page news or capture the wider public interest but exactly what we will be asked to decide on Tuesday.

If people are not aware of these issues before they go to vote, let's hope they take the time to read the proposals carefully before casting their ballots. The problem, however, is the ballot language is not likely to help them much -- in fact, it may confuse them more.

While we might have heard about an unsuccessful lawsuit that claimed the language used for the casino referendum was biased, we haven't heard nearly as much about an equally troubling issue -- the language used on the four less-known amendments is confusing and unlikely to make much sense to anyone who hasn't studied the issues. The wording includes references to things like excluding "constitutional debt limits indebtedness" and resolving "competing claims of title." How many voters have the background to make educated decisions on these issues? I haven't seen any poll data one way or the other, but my guess is very few.

And why should they? What we are asking voters to do on Tuesday is unfair. It's the work of a legislature to make decisions concerning issues of basic public policy and the governor to sign or veto them. We don't live in a direct democracy in which people are required to come together and make decisions like they did in Athens or in New England town meetings. Instead the framers decided it was better in a large and complex nation to have a representative form of government, one in which the people are asked to choose representatives to make decisions on their behalf and throw them out of office if they aren't acting in the people's interest.

How then did New York get to the point where on Tuesday voters will be asked to make decisions on everything from land swaps to municipal debt? It goes back to a fundamental flaw in our state constitution and the fact that it speaks not only to critical issues like our basic rights, how our government is structured and how it runs, but also commonplace issues of policy that are better left to the State Legislature.

Rather than asking voters whether the state should sell forest preserve land to a company named NYCO Minerals that most people have never heard of, we should be asking how we got to this point. If our constitution is flawed, we need to consider fixing it and return the act of policymaking to the legislature and governor where it belongs.

It is one thing to ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment on an issue that pertains to our liberties or how our government functions -- these are the appropriate province of a constitution. It is something else entirely, however, to ask them to make mundane policy decisions about things like civil service credit, the sale of land, and sewer debt which don't belong in a founding document to begin with.

Jeanne Zaino is professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University.

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