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2010 general election ballot: Too much for voters to handle?

2010 general election ballot: Too much for voters to handle?

The Journal Record

July 17, 2009

OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s called ballot fatigue, and it can be the death knell for some issues if voters tired of reading a lengthy ballot choose to mark “no” on everything because they’re impatient.

It’s a concern for some who see that the November 2010 general election ballot, more than a year away, is already laden with eight questions generated by legislators and at least one ballot initiative. Lawmakers and issue supporters can add to the list next year as well.

The 2010 ballot may also feature a heavy flock of candidates for top-of-the ballot races, particularly in the contest to succeed Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, who will have served two consecutive terms.

Oklahoma City attorney Lee Slater, secretary of the State Election Board from 1971-1988, has seen ballot fatigue in action. He said it is particularly noticeable on state-question ballots.

“We had a classic example of that,” he said.

On Thursday, Slater recalled one 10-question ballot that went down in flames in its entirety.

The 1984 general election ballot presented voters with a hefty array of measures, some of which would have raised taxes or eliminated exemptions.

Slater noticed that total voter numbers dropped appreciably on each succeeding question. Although all of the issues failed, the first on the ballot drew 15,579 votes more than the next-to-last proposal, which pulled in the fewest.

In 1980, all eight state questions on the ballot failed.

“One of the things that I think is important in having a number of questions on the ballot is where yours is,” Slater said. “If you have a question that the more people who vote, the more likely it is to pass or fail, then obviously it would be to your advantage, depending upon how you wanted it to come out, to have it at either the top or bottom of the ballot.”

Slater said there is also a presumption that an unpopular question, one that generates a lot of “no” votes, will prompt some voters to turn down all issues on a ballot.

“I think that is not as true with ‘yes’ votes,” he said. “It’s harder to get people to vote ‘yes’ on all of them than it is ‘no’ on all of them.”

Slater said he doesn’t know how that voter tendency might affect the 2010 ballot.

At one recent general election, in 2004, a nine-question slate of ballot issues, some of which drew heated legislative debate, was approved. That was the year Oklahoma voters finally gave a thumbs-up to a state lottery, defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman, approved casino-type gaming and increased the tobacco tax, among other high-publicity issues. The first question in line on that ballot did receive the highest number of votes, 1,435,519, with the lowest number of votes among the other proposals gaining 1,384,265.

When it comes to ballot questions generated by lawmakers following Henry vetoes – including Senate confirmation of Workers’ Compensation Court judges and requiring voters to present a valid ID at the polls – Slater said their fate could be affected by whether the governor actively campaigns against them or legislative leaders work for their passage.

Things can work out differently at special elections, which are called for specific, focused purposes, and not cluttered up with candidates, Slater said.

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said he has concern about the fate of some of the 2010 measures, given the crowded ballot.

“But, many of these are important issues,” Coffee said.

The Senate leader said he believes some issues, such as workers’ compensation reform, could be kept off the ballot if they could be resolved legislatively. He said he expects that issue to be on the legislative agenda next session.

Senate Democratic Leader Charlie Laster, D-Shawnee, who sees a problem with crowded ballots, said the 2004 ballot was unique.

“It’s possible that there was more controversy in the Legislature than there was among the public,” he said of the issues on that ballot.

Laster also said those gaming-related proposals presented voters with a cohesive theme.

Laster said the same thing occurred with the state’s right-to-work law, which sparked a lengthy controversy among lawmakers.

“The people were ready for it when it came out,” he said.

Laster sees the measures currently destined for the 2010 ballot as more of a mixed bag.

“There are some things that the people probably are not going to identify with, one way or the other, as easily as gaming,” he said.

The 2010 ballot could be further extended, Laster said.

“We still have another legislative session,” he said.

Laster said one has to wonder how much roll-off or under-voting may occur when people do not cast votes on everything due to the length of the ballot.

“You certainly have to wonder if there will be a lot of ‘no’ votes just because people think the Legislature is not doing its job in making good policy, instead shucking it off for the voters,” he added.

Laster said he has heard rumors of a building “no them all” coalition.

“It’s preliminary at this point,” he said.

As to voters having to resolve issues some see as legislative matters, Coffee said, “We’ve got a divided government. We have a Democrat governor and a Republican Legislature. There are simply some issues that we couldn’t agree on, and the Legislature felt some of those issues were important enough to go ahead and put them on the ballot and let the people decide. But I think all of us would much prefer that the Legislature dealt with it.”

Issues headed for the November 2010 ballot would also prohibit mandating that state funds be appropriated based upon a pre-set formula, ban former governors who have served two consecutive terms from sitting out at least once and running again, and make English the state’s official language for government purposes, among other proposals. The no-formula measure would block a funding initiative backed by the Oklahoma Education Association.

Current Oklahoma law does not say specifically whether a two-term governor could run again after waiting out a term. The term-limiting measure would also bar certain other state officials from serving longer than eight years in office, with members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission limited to 12 years.

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