by Elspeth Male
The proposed constitutional amendments on the Nov. 8 ballot are being hard fought in Athens. Amendment 1, which would give state officials dominion over “failing” schools, is especially controversial. “Vote No” signs are lined up in front yards and rallying cries are everywhere on Facebook.
But most people give little thought to the bold-faced title and the brief summary that identifies each proposed amendment on the ballot. As it turns out, however, elected officials carefully craft these short blurbs.
And no wonder: reading them alone in a voting booth, a waffling voter could be swayed one way or the other at the last possible moment.
UGA professor Jamie L. Carson says that these summaries are taken directly from the legislation. “The specific language is determined by the state legislators in the respective chambers and voted upon before it eventually appears on the ballot,” said Carson, a professor of political science.
A body called the Constitutional Amendments Publication Board cuts long, legalistic passages into a bold-faced title and a summary paragraph. Its members are the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives. They choose the exact language for each summary, within the constraints set by the law.
Georgia law requires a short title of no more than fifteen words that “shall describe in summary form the substance of the proposal.” This is the bold-faced bit that appears on the ballot, above the summary passage that is typically 50 to 100 words long.
The Attorney General and Secretary of State for Georgia, along with help from the Office of Legislative Counsel, prepare the summaries for each of the four proposals.
For some voters, like Valentina Smith, 48, these summaries tell her what she needs to know. “I look at the summaries. They are just fine,” said Smith.
However, other residents think the titles and text are misleading people in the voting booth. “Maybe you’ll have a person get confused in there because of the wording,” said Gregory Guy, 30. These passages sound like legalistic jargon to him.
Guy believes more could be done to educate voters in advance, so that they’re less likely to vote for something they actually oppose. But he doubts that will actually happen. Instead, he worries politicians use this jargon to pass legislation by unaware citizens.
Justin Norris, 39, a PhD student in political science at the University of Georgia, believes that plainer English is the solution. He’d like to see, “a one or two paragraph summary that does not use coded language to make it look like they are putting lipstick on a pig.”