I’m not sure whether I’m amused or annoyed at the recent spate of press coverage over the “misleading” ballot title for I-884, an initiative that raises $1 billion for education. [Ballot title for education-funding tax measure is clarified]
The ballot title describes a “1 percent” increase in the state sales tax, when more accurate language might have said “1 percentage point” or “1 cent.” Critics argue that this really represents a 15 percent increase, from 6.5 to 7.5 percent. Of course, if the ballot title had said “15 percent” voters’ jaws would have dropped, as many of them would have wrongly understood it to imply an additional 15 cents on the dollar.
So which language would have been more appropriate? “1 percent”, while technically inaccurate, does a fairly good job of conveying the true impact of the initiative in the voters’ vernacular. “15 percent” is mathematically correct, but would likely mislead a large number of voters.
If you ask me, the real problem is not the ballot title, but the process by which they are assigned. The final arbiter is the Thurston County Superior Court, with no possibility of appeal, even though the passage of an initiative can hinge on a single sentence.
Take Initiative 892, for example. Both the attorney general and the court preferred a legalistic, but highly misleading phrasing, that referred to slot machines as “electronic scratch ticket machines.” In an email dated March 15, James Pharris, the AG who wrote the original ballot title said:
It’s legally very important not to describe the machines as “slot machines” which as such are illegal in this state
As it turns out, according to an opinion written by Mr. Pharris in 1996, the Washington Constitution makes no distinction:
The court went on to find that slot machines were a form of mechanical lottery, first noting cases of other states so holding and then making the following observation:
We are firmly of the opinion that slot machines of the variety here involved, their operation–singly and collectively–are mechanical lotteries. The machines constitute mechanical devices which dispense with the necessity of tickets and salesmen, and possibly, other details–mechanical or otherwise–which are generally necessary in the operation of lottery schemes or plans. The scheme or plan involved, rather than any mechanical device employed, constitutes the gist of the question, and determines whether a particular operation constitutes a lottery.
Id. at 152, (italics in the original). The court therefore held unconstitutional a law which would have allowed slot machines in private or nonprofit clubs.
As Mr. Pharris points out, the courts find “slot machines” to be “a form of mechanical lottery”. So what exactly was so “legally very important” about not calling them “slot machines” in the ballot title? Was it important enough to mislead voters? For that is clearly what the phrase “electronic scratch ticket machine” does.
I-892 legalizes slot machines. They look like slot machines. They play like slot machines. They are just as profitable as slot machines… and they are just as addictive. Indeed the industry makes no distinction between “video slots” and “video lottery terminals”, because the only real difference is the software that runs them. Put two of them side-by-side, and you couldn’t tell them apart.
Given a less legalistic, and more honest ballot title, I-892 wouldn’t have had a snowballs chance of passing. As it is, it will still go down to defeat, but only after an expensive and concerted effort to educate the public about what the initiative really does.
I stumbled into the public debate last year, attacking an initiative process badly in need of reform. A year later, it hasn’t gotten any better.