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Flying blind in the voting booth

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Using double-negatives is an attempt to confuse. Shame, shame. State legislators, shame.

By PENNY FLETCHER

The 11 proposed amendments to the Florida State Constitution on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot were almost impossible to understand.

As an avid reader and trained journalist with more than 40 years of writing and interviewing under my belt, I can say this with the utmost accuracy. I have written about ballot amendments many times before, and I have had trouble deciphering their meaning before, but never faced anything like the horror I experienced prior to Election 2012.

It’s a wonder even three of the 11 proposed amendments passed, so few people could understand what they meant. Was it by chance that those that passed used more clarity than the rest, and used wording that included “disabled veterans,” “death of military veterans and/or first responders,” and “low income seniors"?

After a study of the amendments that took me down a long list of county and state employees refusing to go on record, I can say the three amendments that passed were the only ones I personally was able to finally understand by simply reading them.

I decided to tackle the chore of finding out exactly what the amendments meant two weeks prior to Election Day purely on my own. I can’t say anyone made me (or even asked me to) do it. When I saw my sample ballot in the mail, I was filled with a combination of anger and fear. Had we finally reached a point in our elections where somebody, somewhere did not want us to know what we were voting for (or against)?

Immediately I called the Supervisor of Elections Office. I have known Earl J. Lennard for almost 30 years. I know he’s an honest hardworking man. Yet all he could go on the record as saying was to give me an explanation as to why there was no Number 7.

“Number 7 was rewritten and became No. 8 by judge’s order,” he explained.

When I asked if he could help me understand the wording of the amendments, he said he could not, because under the law, his office could not aid anyone except to point them to the sample ballot in advance of the election so they could do their own research.  

But why? Isn’t it the duty of the Elections Office to aid people in voting?

As it turns out, it’s not.

The Supervisor of Elections Office can only encourage people to vote. It can supply ballots, aid people in obtaining and filing their ballots, but it cannot explain anything.

“If we were to explain, then people could say we took a position,” Lennard told me.

He was able to point me to several places online that summarized the ballot amendments.

What I found was, however, either slightly slanted words in the explanations (depending on whether the source encouraged passage or opposed the amendment) or, in the case of two sites, The League of Women Voters and the Collins Center for Public Policy, even the shortened versions used what I call $10 words and even then were not right on target to explain the entirety of what would occur if passed.

Next I went to the County Attorney’s Office.

Surely lawyers retained by Hillsborough County could explain “legalese.”

Debora Cromartie-Mincey, senior assistant county attorney pointed me to — of all things: The League of Women Voters. “They have an excellent website,” she told me in an email after I had spoken to her on the phone and received a promise I would get an email from her that day. But the email was disappointing.

When I got it, I quickly hit reply.

“I have already visited that website before I called your office,” I explained. “Is there no one in the County Attorney’s Office who can help me?”

A short while later, I was assured there was not.

Since several of the issues concerned property taxes, I called the county property tax office to help me gain perspective.

After contacting an old source I have dealt with many times over the years, I was sent to the Media Relations Office where a spokeswoman went over the wording of No. 9, which compared to the others, was relatively easy to understand.

The problem was however, that No. 9, which did pass, only said it granted surviving spouses of military veterans and first responders “homestead property tax relief.”
The ballot did not mention the words “will pay no property tax” or “must have been a resident of the State of Florida Jan. 1 of the year they died” or “must remain in the home to be exempted and not remarry.”

These things were explained to me, however, in detail on the phone prior to the election and included in my story.

But that meant the ballot explanation was incomplete.

Since this was so hard to believe, I asked the exact terms, and even posed the question, “so this means they will pay no property tax?”

After calling several people to the phone I received a hesitant “yes” (they would pay no tax) and they also explained the conditions which state that the surviving spouse must stay in the exempted home and not remarry to qualify for the exemption.

After the amendment passed, the condition about being a resident Jan. 1 of the year of death appeared in the explanation of what passed in several publications.

Please note I said “after the election.”

By now I was completely frustrated and wondering what the average voter who did not have this kind of time to investigate would do.

So I changed my tactics.

Instead of calling as a reporter, I then called “Voter Services” at (813) 744-5900.

“I am a registered voter in Hillsborough County and I need help understanding the ballot amendments,” I said to the volunteer.

“Would you like me to send you a sample ballot?” the voice asked.

“No, I have a sample ballot in front of me. I need someone to explain the wording as I do not understand it.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. All we can do is supply you with a sample ballot,” the voice — who would not give her name — answered.

Now wondering what the average voter would do if they weren’t spending three whole days on a news story so they could understand the ballot, I went back to Mr. Lennard.

He was able to shed a little bit more light and I knew if he was not prevented by law, he’d have told me more.

“There were no petition efforts this year,” he said. “All the amendments came directly from the (Florida) Senate and House.”

So I went to the websites where the bills first originated in Tallahassee and followed their progression in PDF files online that told what words were taken out and what was substituted. I ran these links in my news story, knowing that perhaps one in every 100 readers might have the time to check them out.

So I, who crafts words to make a living, set out with my magnifying glass to read each word in every proposed amendment. I poked along, calling this person and that and finally getting some help from an aide in County Commissioner Sandra Murman’s office. But this was not the job of a County Commissioner’s aide. He was only helping me parse out the words and try to figure out why saying “yes” really meant “no” as in Amendment No. 1.

The most confusing amendment by far was No. 8, which before the Supreme Court justice’s ruling, had been No. 7. (As if that in itself wasn’t confusing enough.)

Called the “Religious Freedom Act” No. 8 had nothing to do with religious freedom.

The first five lines of the proposed amendment talked about religious freedom. Why, wouldn’t just about everyone want that?

“ … that no individual or entity would be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief…”

Sounds like it’s about religious freedom, right?

Well, by the time my magnifying glass and I made it to the bottom line, I realized this amendment was talking about removing the existing ban on vouchers for religious schools. A “yes” vote meant you were in favor of removing the Constitutional prohibition for state funding of any institution owned or run by a religious denomination.

My problem is not with the state paying for — or not paying for — anything to do with religious denominations. My problem is with “yes” meaning “a prohibition — or in other words, ‘no.”

Using double-negatives is an attempt to confuse.

Shame, shame. State legislators, shame.

Our government should never aim at confusion and that is just what these legislative-written amendments did.

Take No. 5 for instance. Did it ask us outright if we wanted to move judicial powers to the legislative branch of government? Wait a minute, did that ask if we want to give the legislators — who won’t even write a clear proposed amendment — power that now lies in the hands of judges on the bench?  

Yes, voters, it did.

And No. 10: the exemption on “personal” property. That doesn’t mean “personal?”

No, this amendment was about businesses.

How did I know that? It didn’t use the word businesses on the ballot anywhere.

But I found out from the property tax office that businesses are the only ones who pay the tax listed in No. 10 — the “tangible personal property tax.”

This column could not be written until after the election because it is not the purpose of this newspaper to influence the vote. The story about the amendments was written to aid voters in understanding what lay before them.

Many have written and told me it did. But that is not the question now. The voting is over, and there is much to be said about the way legislators wrote the amendments.

It would behoove (yes, occasionally I will use a $5 word) us to use our individual and collective voices to tell our legislators what we think of the phrasing they used on our ballots.

Just say “No!” to their legalese.

Tell them we deserve better. 

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