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Are Ballot Measures Obsolete?

Wed, 11/10/2021 - 16:50


The failure of important ballot measures on Election Day that would have made registering easier and boosted voter participation may have signaled a necessary demise of referendums in New York State. Back-of-the-ballot measures asking for a “yes” or “no” after a block of intentionally confounding text were never a good way for government to function. But now, with the media landscape fractured into a million competing options, only the most committed political junkies could make sense of them.

Three of the five ballot proposals should have won wide support: one for same-day voter registration up to Election Day, one for no-excuse absentee ballots. Another would have made welcome changes to New York’s redistricting procedures. Republican groups spent heavily in some parts of the state urging the measures’ defeat, so where there was awareness it was negative. On the other side of the equation, state Democrats inexplicably did not bother to promote them. The Albany Times-Union quoted the party chairman, Jay Jacobs, admitting, “the ball was dropped.”

Among the problems with measures like these is that they are the only practical way to amend the State Constitution and that the power to put them on the ballot belongs to the Legislature. Citizen-sponsored constitutional changes are not an option. This means that lobbyists, think tanks, public relations outfits, and legislative aides run wild, producing incomprehensible language filled with double or triple negatives beyond the quick decoding in the voting booth. Even the best-informed citizens can never truly be sure what they are voting for. And this brings us back to the information silos we increasingly live in.

Setting aside ballot proposition 5, which had to do with New York City courts and was also approved, it was the least complicated measure that passed. It promised to “establish the right of each person to clean air and water and a healthful environment.” One did not have to know much to feel good about that. But eliminating the 10-day cutoff for voter registration and knocking down the impediment to obtaining an absentee ballot was a step too far? That hardly makes any sense.

So, are New York’s ballot propositions doomed unless coated in sugary goodness? It may be too soon to tell, but it seems the less voters know, the more likely it is that they will say “no” when the moment comes to decide.

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