Citizens of the United Kingdom yesterday voted in a national referendum on Thursday to determine the country’s future with the European Union. As of the time of this writing, the election is too close to call [Update: Leave 52%, Remain 48% with turnout north of 70%].
Our interest in their vote has nothing to do with European politics or global financial markets, or even Game of Thrones production incentives, but instead has to do with ballot language.
The question posed to U.K. voters was remarkably clear, and so were voters’ options. Instead of “yes” and “no,” the ballot had clearly worded actions signifying what each vote meant. Voters could choose either “Remain a member of the European Union” or “Leave the European Union.”
Compare that to the high-profile choice presented to City of Austin voters regarding “ride-sharing.”
Shall the City Code be amended to repeal City Ordinance Co. 20151217-075 relating to Transportation Network Companies; and replace with an ordinance that would repeal and prohibit required fingerprinting, repeal the requirement to identify the vehicle with a distinctive emblem, repeal the prohibition against loading and unloading passengers in a travel lane, and require other regulations for Transportation Network Companies?
Voters could choose “For the Ordinance” or “Against the Ordinance,” but the proposition language specifically mentions two ordinances. The proposition would repeal the first, No. 20151217-075, and replace it with another that would also repeal requirements and “require other regulations.” Voters had to interpret whether a vote “For the Ordinance” applied to the first ordinance or the second one.
Ballot language can become particularly confusing when negative action is contemplated, such as repealing existing law (as in Austin’s Prop 1) or limiting existing authority. In some cases, the confusion arises when “limiting” does not mean the same thing as lessening or lowering. For example, Houston voters in 2015 expanded term limits, particularly for incumbent council members, when they approved Proposition 2.
(Relating to Term Limits for City Elective Office) Shall the City Charter of the City of Houston be amended to reduce the number of terms of elective offices to no more than two terms in the same office and limit the length for all terms of elective office to four years, beginning in January 2016; and provide for transition?
Prior to Prop 2’s enactment, the mayor and council members could serve no more than three two-year terms for a total of six years. Prop 2 expanded terms to four years, but limited officials to two of those terms, for a total of eight years. The “transition” provisions would permit current officeholders to serve for up to 10 years.
Lawsuits have been filed against both of the above ballot propositions claiming voters were misled by their wording. We are not calling either proposition misleading, and we encourage voters to learn about all ballot initiatives and make informed decisions when casting their ballots. However, it is clear that the British ballot is clearer, and a little clarity in Texas ballot wording might not be a bad thing,