Why Writing Ballot Titles Matter

Legislation to create a limited purpose driver's license in Oregon has been referred and now has stirred up a legislative controversy over who should write the all-important ballot title.Despite opportunities for a fair amount of ruckus, the 2014 legislative session has generally steered clear of controversial issues. One of the issues that has generated significant heat in the final days of the session is an effort to write a ballot title for a driver’s license issue on the ballot in November.

Oregon’s constitution provides three ways in which issues may be put before voters. The legislature may refer a measure to the voters (referral), citizens may develop their own ideas and petition for them to be in front of voters (initiative) and citizens may petition to put a measure passed by the legislature onto the ballot (referendum). Regardless of how an idea gets in front of the voters, it is called a ballot measure and assigned a ballot title.

Ballot titles are important because they are all too often the only words voters read about the measure. The way a measure is described in the ballot title, and subsequent effect of yes and no vote statements, is among the most important factors in terms of passage or failure of a measure.

In recent years, the legislature has taken a proactive role in writing ballot titles for referrals. This has resulted in a staggering passage rate of legislative referrals. Since the year 2000, the legislature has written ballot titles on 20 referrals and allowed the attorney general to write ballot titles on 21 others. Measures with ballot titles written by the legislature had an 85 percent passage rate, whereas the ones written by the attorney general had a passage rate of only 57 percent.

It’s not an accident that the passage rate increases when the legislature writes the title.  Ballot measures are poll-tested and legislators rely on poll-tested ballot title wording.

Little wonder then that there is intense interest in ensuring the legislature rewrite the ballot title for the driver’s card referendum. The chances of passage of the measure are increased significantly, particularly when legislators have polls to rely upon. It’s also no wonder that those who wanted to refer the legislative action desperately want to stop the legislature from passing its own title.

One of the key arguments against the legislature intervening is that they haven’t ever intervened on a referendum before… or, at least, not in this way. The reality is the legislature hasn’t really had a chance to do so in the past. With biennial sessions, the legislature wasn’t in session at a point in time where it could intervene in ballot-title writing for referenda. With annual sessions, the legislature now has the opportunity to do so.

Many would argue that it is only fair the legislature, which passed the legislation that is the subject of the referendum, have the opportunity to explain the impact of the measure through the ballot title process. Others would say that it is an inappropriate political intrusion into the citizen’s right to referendum.

No matter what the argument, the reality is this issue will continue to consume legislators’ attention as they seek a path to adjournment.