Confusing wording could sink New Mexico amendment

PHRASING FLAP: The wording of an amendment to the New Mexico Constitution has supporters worried about its passage.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

An amendment on the ballot in New Mexico could pave the way for taxpayers saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in school elections across the state.

But critics say the wording of Constitutional Amendment 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot may so confuse voters they may end up simply skipping the question or even inadvertently vote the opposite of what they intend.

“I think it’s too bad we don’t value clear writing on the ballot,” said Gwyneth Doland, a part-time instructor of journalism at the University of New Mexico, who thinks too many ballot questions are written in overly lawyered terms that come at the expense of plain English.

Even the sponsor of Amendment 1 concedes as much.

“I think in retrospect it could have been phrased more clearly,” said state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

The confusion about the language in Amendment 1 is complicated by the measure itself and rooted at trying to fix what Ivey-Soto described as “an anachronistic vestige of our state constitution.”

Here’s how Constitutional Amendment 1 is worded:

Proposing to amend article 7, section 1 of the constitution of New Mexico to provide that school elections shall be held at different times from partisan elections.

The phrasing implies that school elections are currently held at the same time as partisan elections. They aren’t.

Instead, school elections in the state have long been held completely separately. They’re not conducted during November statewide elections and they’re not even held when municipal issues, such as bond questions, go before voters.

Why?

Before 1920, women didn’t have the right to vote in federal elections, such as in races to determine who would be elected president and to Congress. To allow women in New Mexico to vote in school elections, the state constitution had school elections on a different date than federal elections.

In fact, to this day, school board elections in New Mexico can’t be held at the same time as ANY other election.

That’s what Amendment 1 tries to change.

Critics say that crucial piece of information isn’t included in the amendment’s wording.

“This left me in total confusion,” voter Craig Barth of Cochiti Lake wrote to the Albuquerque Journal. “What is the intent of Amendment 1?”

The intent, Ivey-Soto said, is to fix the state constitution by giving legislators the right to debate moving school board elections to align with municipal elections — something Ivey-Soto estimates could save taxpayers in the Albuquerque area alone between $300,000-$500,000.

Ivey-Soto emphasized that passing Amendment 1 wouldn’t directly lead to having school elections at the same time as municipal elections. Instead, if passed, it would give the Legislature the green light to consider such a move.

“All this allows us to do is have a conversation that we can’t have otherwise.” Ivey-Soto said.

Since Amendment 1 deals with voting rights, it needs to be supported by 75 percent of New Mexico voters instead of a simple majority.

The confusion over the wording of the amendment could hurt its chances, but Ivey-Soto pointed out that six years ago the amendment was phrased in the exact same language and missed passing by just one-half of one percent.

“In light of the concerns people have raised, I wish we would have phrased it a little differently,” Ivey-Soto said.

Critics say the flap points out a larger issue about ballot questions that are badly worded, lack context or are so turgid voters skip past them or vote simply “yes” out of habit.

For example, Amendment No. 4 asks voters to vote yes or no to:

Amend Article 10, Section 10 of the Constitution of New Mexico to allow certain counties to become urban counties and to clarify the majority vote needed to adopt a county charter.

“What’s on the ballot is a bunch of gibberish,” said Doland, who had her students attempt to rewrite the amendments as a classroom assignment. “As a writing instructor, I think some of this language is actively misleading … I don’t believe there is any effort made to consider the readability of this ballot language.”

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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