Framing issues with a broken ballot

By Tom Baxter

Design-wise, the ballot Georgia voters will see when they go to the polls Tuesday is a hot mess. It puts wishful thinking ahead of real choices and doesn’t get to the toughest questions until the end.

The candidates and questions vary by county, but all follow the same ballot order. First come the party primaries for state and local offices. Then come what are labeled Republican or Democratic Party Questions, all of which can be designated as wishful thinking, since votes aren’t actually being cast to enact these measures, but merely to solicit voters’ opinions.

The wishful thinking section is followed – as if to jolt voters out of their fantasies — by the nonpartisan judicial elections. And only then, at the very end, do we come to the issue which has consumed so much energy and money and gas this year: the T-SPLOST question, followed by the local questions, like liquor sales in unincorporated Fulton County and consolidation in Bibb County, which really mean something to the voters.

To those in the know, it’s obvious the ballot is structured in this way so as to demarcate the partisan – the political primaries and the party questions – from the nonpartisan – the judicial races and the referendum questions.

But that doesn’t mean it’s obvious to the casual voter, which is to say the majority of those who will cast their ballots. It would make perfect sense for those who haven’t been paying attention to assume that the party questions on charter schools (Democratic ballot) or casinos (Republican) are the most relevant, because they’re the top questions on the ballot. And since there’s nothing on the ballot to specifically indicate otherwise besides the Party Questions label, it would make sense for voters to think the fate of casinos or charter schools really hinges on their vote, which they don’t.

You’ll seldom hear any complaints about the party questions from either Democrats or Republicans, because essentially the questions are a promotional device for partisans. Some, like the charter school and casino questions, are intended to stir up some legitimate debate within the parties and thereby increase the turnout, but most simply serve the purpose of allowing loyal party members a chance to reaffirm their own opinions.

Here’s guessing that the Democrats will approve the idea of an income tax credit for home energy costs, “to support the economic security of our families.” And that the Republicans will approve of changing the Georgia Constitution to provide “that the paramount right to life is vested in each innocent human being from his or her earliest biological beginning without regard to age, race, sex, health, function, or condition of dependency.”

With most of these, you don’t have to wait until the returns come in to predict the outcome. It’s already wired into the wording of the question.

The only question on either party’s ballot which doesn’t fit into either the stirring-up or feeling-good categories is one on the Republican ballot which asks if voters should be required to register by party at least 30 days before a primary election.

That proposal has probably caused the least conversation, and yet it’s the one most likely to go beyond wishful thinking if it passes. Casinos would face an uphill battle in the legislature, even if Republican voters were to approve that question, but party registration is one of those wonky issues that isn’t going to get a lot of media attention. If a solid majority of Republican voters approved it, the idea could take flight very quickly, with potentially some very large implications for politics in the state.

What can be done about a ballot design that misplaces our priorities and misleads the inattentive? Simple economics and the opportunity for enlarged turnouts dictates that nonpartisan races and questions will continue to share a ballot with party primaries, and loaded though they may be, the parties have the right to put questions on the ballot.

But aside from the egos of the political candidates, there’s no intrinsic reason their names have to go first. It may seem a little inside-out at first, but what if the nonpartisan section, which concerns everybody in the state, were placed ahead of the partisan section of the ballot?

That would confront voters straight off with a bunch of judicial races they know little about, but so what? They’re still important races, and it might have a very tonic affect on the Congressional, PSC and legislative candidates to be farther down the line for a change. It would also place the questions that really count, the referendums and special elections, in a more prominent place, and relegate the opinion questions to the bottom of the list, where they won’t be taken as seriously.

The 2000 Florida presidential ballot demonstrated how fairly innocuous design decisions could contribute to a protracted muddle of epic proportions.  The bad design of the Georgia ballot won’t cause anything as dramatic, but it affects in a very literal way how voters frame the issues. Design matters, as much to a democracy as to a house.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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