Kansas bill would allow explanation of confusing ballots

Secretary of State Kris Kobach and others urged Kansas lawmakers Wednesday to approve a bill to give voters an explanation when they’re faced with inexplicable ballot measures.

House Bill 2162 would allow a county election officer to request that a plain-language “explainer” be drawn up when a ballot measure is too confusing, technical or otherwise difficult for voters to understand. The explanation would be posted at polling places and sent along with the ballot to people who vote by mail.

“We think it’s a good idea,” Kobach said. “We participated in the drafting of this (bill) and we think it makes sense.”

The bill is designed to solve a problem that arose in last year’s Wichita election, when a citizen petition forced a referendum on a City Council decision to spend hotel tax revenue to subsidize development of the Ambassador Hotel project downtown. The ballot measure read, in its entirety: “Shall Charter Ordinance 216 entitled: ‘A charter ordinance amending and repealing Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 213, of the city of Wichita, Kansas, which amended and repealed Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 183 of the city of Wichita which amended and repealed Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 174 of the city of Wichita, Kansas, pertaining to the application of revenues from the transient guest tax take effect?”

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who drafted the language, said he knew voters would have trouble understanding whether they were voting for or against the hotel subsidy. But he said his hands were tied by the state Constitution, which sets down precise rules for writing ballot measures.

Local election officials said they fielded questions from many confused voters, but were only allowed to answer: “Yes means yes. No means no.”

“What is a voter supposed to do in this case?” Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby asked in his testimony to the House Election Committee. “Poll workers and the election office are prohibited from explaining the questions because it can be construed as biased or leading a voter. I spoke with one supervising (polling place) judge that said some voters would come to vote, see the example ballot, get confused and have to leave the poll site to go study the issue and then return later to vote.”

HB 2162 wouldn’t change the Constitutional requirement that ballot measures be written the way they are. But the bill would allow county officials to provide an official explanation of the effect of a “yes” or “no” vote.

Depending on the circumstances, the explainer would be written by the local district or county attorney or counselor and approved for neutrality by the secretary of state; or written by the secretary of state and approved by the attorney general.

On Wednesday, Kobach told the Election Committee that his office handles about 60 local ballot measures a year, which generates a lot of confused voters.

“Often times we’ll get calls to our office from all over the state saying, ‘What does this mean?’” Kobach said.

Kobach said the safeguards in the measure would prevent anyone from using the explainer to campaign for or against a ballot measure.

“You have two sets of eyes (approving each ballot explainer) which should eliminate or at least reduce the possibility of any bias in the drafting,” Kobach said.

HB 2162 passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate. This year, the bill probably will pass fairly easily, said Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, a member of the Election Committee.

No one spoke against the measure in Wednesday’s hearing. However, the Kansas League of Municipalities did request an amendment to allow city attorneys to write the explainer on city measures.

“We believe these confusing ballot questions are rare and that local governments have the capacity to draft these explanatory statements on their own,” said Michael Koss, a staff attorney for the league, who testified as a neutral party. “Our city attorneys are fully capable of writing clear, unbiased explainer language,” he said. “They’re best suited to summarize community issues and they’re more accountable to the electorate than are state officers.”