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Confusing October ballot caused by state changes - KTBS.com - Shreveport, LA News, Weather and Sports

Confusing October ballot caused by state changes

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SHREVEPORT, La. -

The October 19 election is over without change. None of the proposals the Caddo Commission presented to voters passed, but the election has shined light on an issue -- ballot wording. Some in the community claim the proposal asking voters to extend commissioners' term limits from three four-year terms to five four-year terms was confusing and downright misleading.

"Just tell the voters, right up front, that you are trying to extend the number of terms that Caddo Parish Commissioners can serve from three to five," Lewis Avallone, a Shreveport attorney, said.

Avallone points out the proposal failed to let voters know that commissioners already face term limits and that the decision was whether or not those limits should be extended. He says the ballot simply read as if voters were installing term limits for the first time.

"Someone in the ballot box who is reading this, who perhaps hasn't studied the matter fully, would not already know that commissioner's are already limited to three terms," Avallone said.

Avallone believes the language used to describe the proposal was too confusing to be easily understood. He says it was written on a post high school graduate reading level. It's a standard used nationwide that he feels should be changed.

"Folks aren't engaged if the reading level is at a post graduate level," Avallone said. "It's very difficult for folks to understand exactly what are we voting on. This ballot measure set forth by the Caddo Commission is a perfect example."

The ballot in question:
Shall Paragraph A, Section 3-01 of Article III of the Caddo Parish Home Rule Charter be amended to read as follows?
The legislative power of the parish government shall be vested in a Commission consisting of members who shall be called commissioners and who shall be elected for four-year terms from districts enumerated in Section 9-01, one from and by the qualified electors in each district. The commissioners shall be limited to five (5) consecutive elected terms.

The proposal was written by the Caddo Parish Attorney's Office back in the summer and was based on an ordinance passed by commissioners. Donna Frazier, the parish's newly appointed attorney, says her predecessor Charles Grubb drafted it. The proposal was then sent to the secretary of state's office to be approved and placed on the ballot.

That's normally how ballot proposals that change the parish charter are handled. This time it was sent near deadline, which didn't allow for any quick changes. According to Frazier, new state software caused the problems voters faced.

"I suspect that it was just a matter of timing with this," Frazier said. "Because it's not something that, per se, but a kind of internal programing error with the secretary of state's office, we would've had no way of knowing that changes needed to be made."

Frazier says the proposal originally informed voters about current term limits. To show the law was being changed, a sentence containing 'three four-year terms' was written with a strike through. While the next sentence read 'five four-year terms,' which was underlined. She says the secretary of state's office now uses printing software that doesn't allow such strike through's and underlining. They were removed and what voters read in Oct. was the result.

"The proposition was to change  the three years to five years. So, the three was stricken and the five was added," Frazier said. "Three would've been stricken. Five would have been underlined. Those changes had to be taken out per the secretary of state."

Frazier says this was the first time strike-through's and underlining haven't been possible. Dr. Woodrow Wilson, the parish administrator, says officials will consider the changes. That means future ballots will be written in a way that's easier to understand.

"Being that this is some of the feed back we're getting, that perhaps some of the language was somewhat confusing," Wilson said. "I'll convey that message to the board. So, that when the board crafts any future resolutions or ordinances, we'll make sure it's clear for the citizens."

Wilson says it was not the parish's goal to be misleading. Frazier adds it was made clear to voters that the proposal was amending a law, and they could check using the web site Municode. While the voter's registrar's office can't help someone understand a proposal, Wilson says commissioners hold meetings where a voter can get educated. They can also contact the parish administration's office for help.

"We'll direct them to the right source," Wilson said. "Usually, if I can't explain it, then we'll have the legal team explain it, the intent on what's being asked."

The secretary of state's office confirms there were changes made to proposal by their office to better suit new software.   They also added that audio ballots, used for those who are visually impaired, would not be able to handle strike through style balloting and that ballots must be consistent.  

Ultimately, Louisiana law states that the Secretary of State's office is responsible for ensuring that ballot wording is "simple, unbiased, concise, and easily understood."  The law requires that matters must be in the form of a question and not exceed 200 words in length.  

The law, Louisiana Revised Statute 18 - §1299.1.  reads:

Question or proposition to be voted on; length

A.  The preparation of a question or proposition to be submitted to the voters at an election shall be the responsibility of the governing authority or other entity calling the election or submitting the question or proposition.  The proposition shall be comprised of simple, unbiased, concise, and easily understood language and be in the form of a question.  The proposition shall not exceed two hundred words in length.

 

B.  The secretary of state shall be responsible for ensuring that the proposition complies with the requirements of this Section. 

 

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