When you ask voters to make major changes in the way they’re represented in the Legislature, you have to make certain they understand what they’re being asked to vote for. That’s the job of Oregon’s attorney general, and, in the case of Initiative Petition 5, her explanation didn’t go far enough.
The petition, sponsored by Kevin Mannix, a former Republican legislator and frequent candidate for higher office, and others, would change the way Oregon redraws legislative districts after each census. Petitioners must gather nearly 150,000 signatures to get it on the ballot, and they must have an approved ballot title before they can begin collecting signatures.
While writing the ballot title falls to the attorney general, her language can be challenged in the Oregon Supreme Court. That’s exactly what happened with IP 5, and on Aug. 15, the court ruled that language proposed needed to be changed. More than that, it offered very specific suggestions about what should be said.
While it may be unusual for the court to get down to proposing specific language for a ballot title and accompanying explanations of what “yes” and “no” votes would mean, doing so made sense in this case. The changes proposed are substantial, and voters must be given the best chance possible to understand what they’re being asked to do. Moreover, ballot titles may include only 15 words, while vote explanations may contain only 25 words each.
IP 5 would amend the Oregon Constitution by removing legislative redistricting from the hands of lawmakers and assigning it to an appointed commission. Even in initiative petition-happy Oregon, changing the constitution is a big deal, and the attorney general’s ballot title did not make clear that is what’s at stake with IP 5. The court’s suggested language puts it in the forefront, where it should be. It makes clear that the change would give rural Oregonians an outsized say in the process.
Clarity is critical when it comes to initiative petitions, particularly when they propose amending the constitution, and the court has provided language to assure that clarity is what voters get.