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Not just Ohio: Biased language is the hot new tactic to thwart ballot measures

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lailluminator.com – Zachary Roth – 2023-09-04 05:00:30

Not just Ohio: Biased language is the hot new tactic to thwart ballot measures

by Zachary Roth, Louisiana Illuminator
September 4, 2023

Abortion-rights supporters filed a lawsuit Monday against what they call “deceptive” ballot language produced by Ohio officials for the state's closely-watched upcoming referendum on the issue.

But it isn't just the Buckeye State that's lately seeing fierce battles over the once-obscure topic of ballot language.

In recent weeks, officials in Missouri — where another abortion-rights measure is at issue — and Idaho also have been accused in lawsuits of seeking to thwart citizen initiatives they oppose by using biased and negative ballot language to describe the issue to voters. Arkansas last year saw a similar court fight after a state board rejected a proposed ballot measure that had gained the required number of signatures, claiming the ballot language didn't explain the issue in enough detail.

Direct democracy advocates see these language disputes as another tactic in the larger war on ballot initiatives playing out across the country. As States Newsroom has reported, in recent years a slew of states has tried to crack down on ballot measures by imposing more onerous signature requirements or raising the threshold for voter approval above a simple majority, among other steps. It's no coincidence that in all four of the states where controversies over ballot language have flared most prominently, Republican lawmakers have tried other tacks — so far unsuccessfully — to restrict ballot measures more broadly.

Even if misleading ballot language ultimately gets thrown out by the courts, advocates say, these fights can raise the costs of bringing initiatives by requiring supporters to engage in lengthy litigation. And in some states, signature-gathering can't start until ballot language is approved — meaning delays caused by fights over language can eat into the limited timeframe that organizers have to get the necessary signatures.

“This has been an escalating effort to attack ballot titles,” said Sarah Walker, director of legal and policy advocacy at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which provides support for progressive ballot measures. “It's just more of a long trajectory of efforts to undermine the will of the voters. And it shows how far politicians who are out of step with voters are willing to go to consolidate their power.”

The claims of biased language also raise questions about the role of secretaries of state and other state officials in administering the ballot measure process. Though they may support or oppose ballot measures, there has long been an expectation that state election officials must perform their duties fairly and impartially — just as they're expected to do when running conventional elections involving candidates.

But in the current hyper-partisan political climate, that expectation may be breaking down, leaving good-government advocates concerned.

“A politicized, partisan secretary of state can completely distort public understanding of a ballot question through their control of the summary language,” said Kevin Johnson, executive director of Election Reformers Network, which backs reforms aimed at removing partisanship from election administration (Disclosure: This reporter worked for several months in 2022 as a communications consultant for ERN). “We would never accept a referee playing for one team in sports and we shouldn't in elections either.”

Ohio Issue 1 would have required 60% voter approval to amend the state constitution. (Ohio Capital Journal)

Johnson pointed to Missouri, where Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican who opposes abortion rights, last month approved a ballot title that asks voters if they want to protect “dangerous, unregulated, and unrestricted abortions, from contraception to live birth.” The title also asks voters if they want to “nullify longstanding Missouri law protecting the right to life.”

A lawsuit filed by Missouri's ACLU chapter seeks to require Ashcroft, who is running for the GOP nomination for governor, to use more neutral wording.

The skewed language came after Republican-authored legislation that would have required ballot initiatives to gain 57% approval, rather than a simple majority, unexpectedly died in the state Senate in May, after passing the House. Lawmakers have pledged to try again next year, saying the goal is to thwart the abortion-rights measure.

A proposed constitutional amendment, for which a petition was filed recently with the state by a grassroots organizing group, aims to protect Missouri's ballot initiative process. Among other steps, it would ensure that ballot titles “express the true intent and meaning” of the measure at issue.

Events in Ohio have followed a strikingly similar pattern. First, lawmakers drafted a ballot measure, Issue One, that aimed to make it harder to use ballot initiatives to amend the state constitution by requiring 60% voter approval, among other steps. Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who is running in a competitive Republican primary for the U.S. Senate nomination, told fellow GOPers the change was needed to stop a proposed amendment protecting abortion rights.

In his official role, LaRose approved ballot language for Issue One that said the measure would “elevate the standards” for constitutional amendments — wording that Issue One opponents called overly positive.

After voters overwhelmingly rejected Issue One earlier this month, Republicans tried another approach to stop the abortion-rights measure, which voters will decide in November.

On a 3-2 party-line vote, the state Ballot Board, which is chaired by LaRose, approved a ballot summary drafted by his office which uses the term “unborn child” in place of the more medically accurate “fetus.” The summary also tells voters that the amendment would “always allow an unborn child to be aborted” if a doctor decides it's medically necessary. The actual language of the amendment would bar such an abortion unless the patient agrees to it.

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At the meeting to vote on the language, one Republican board member called the abortion-rights amendment “dangerous” and pledged to fight “tirelessly” against it.

“The Ballot Board's members adopted politicized, distorted language for the amendment, exploiting their authority in a last ditch effort to deceive and confuse Ohio voters ahead of the November vote on reproductive freedom,” Lauren Blauvelt of Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights said in a statement.

In Idaho, it's not abortion rights at issue. But the larger contours of the dispute are familiar.

Organizers of a proposed ballot initiative to create open primaries sued Attorney General Raúl Labrador over the ballot title his office produced. The title told voters that the measure would “replace voter selection of party nominees with nonparty blanket primary.”

In fact, supporters of the initiative said, voters would still choose nominees. But instead of having closed primaries in which only members of the major parties can vote, everyone would get to vote and the top four finishers, regardless of party, would advance to the general election.

Labrador, a Republican, hasn't sought to hide his opposition to the measure. “Let's defeat these bad ideas coming from liberal outside groups,” he tweeted in May.

After being ordered to do so by the Idaho Supreme Court, Labrador submitted new titles that were then certified by the court, but the delay caused by litigation could prove fatal to the measure's chances, supporters say.

“[I]t shortens the already limited time to circulate the initiative petition for signatures,” they wrote in court filings. “This delay alone may doom the possibility of the initiative reaching the ballot.”

Idaho's legislature has for years sought to restrict ballot measures. In March, a resolution that would have imposed stiffer signature-gathering requirements for ballot initiatives passed the state House by 39-31 but failed to win the two-thirds majority needed to go to voters. In 2021, Idaho's Supreme Court struck down a similar measure passed by lawmakers.

In Arkansas, things played out a bit differently. Last year, the State Board of Election Commissioners rejected a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana, saying that the ballot language didn't adequately explain the proposal. For instance, they said the measure didn't tell voters that it would repeal the state's limit, under its medical marijuana law, on how much THC is allowed in edible marijuana.

A lawyer for the coalition backing the measure said that level of detail “simply is not workable for a ballot.”

After a legal challenge, the measure was approved for the ballot, but it was rejected by voters.

Arkansas voters also rejected an effort by lawmakers to make ballot measures harder to pass. Like Ohio's Issue One, it would have required a 60% threshold for approval.

State officials who have tried to use misleading language to boost their side have more often lately been looking to defeat, rather than help, a ballot initiative. But the same scheme is sometimes used to boost a measure's chances.

Language written by Republican lawmakers in Kansas for last year's high-profile effort to ban abortion in the state said the measure would “reserve to the people the right to regulate abortion.” It also said the measure would “affirm there is no constitutional right to abortion or to require the government funding of abortion.”

In fact, the state Supreme Court had previously found that there is a right to abortion, meaning the measure would have taken it away. And government funding of abortion was already illegal.

“The language was very misleading,” said Rachel Sweet, an abortion-rights advocate who played a key role in the successful campaign to defeat the Kansas measure. “We really had to clearly define for people what that amendment was actually trying to do.”

There is some evidence that how a ballot measure is worded can affect the level of support it receives. A 2021 study found that people were almost twice as likely to back a hypothetical tax increase to fund education when it was described as an additional “one cent per dollar,” compared to when it was described as “a 22 percent increase.”

“As a general matter,” wrote the study's author, University of Georgia political scientist Ted Rossier, “state institutions that are responsible for writing ballot questions, as well as the courts that hear challenges thereto, must remain mindful of the potential for nefarious manipulation of the process.”

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Louisiana Illuminator

After U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow bump stocks, U.S. Senate rejects bill to ban them • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Ariana Figueroa – 2024-06-19 06:25:13

by Ariana Figueroa, Louisiana Illuminator
June 19, 2024

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts blocked a bipartisan bill Tuesday that would ban bump stocks following a Supreme Court decision that repealed a Trump-era rule against using the gun accessory.

Ricketts, a Nebraska Republican, objected to New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich's request that the chamber approve his bill — cosponsored by Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins — by unanimous consent.

Heinrich attempted to pass the bill, which the trio introduced last year, following the Supreme Court ruling last week that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lacked the authority to ban bump stocks.

“As a firearms owner myself, there's no legitimate use for a bump stock,” Heinrich said. “What they are tailor made for is a mass shooting.”

The bill, S. 1909, would ban the sale of bump stocks that allow semi-automatic weapons to rapidly fire multiple rounds like a machine gun.

Ricketts argued that the Supreme Court made the right decision and said the bill didn't just ban bump stocks but also “targets other firearm accessories.”

Ricketts added that the bill is a violation of the Second Amendment.

“This bill is about banning as many firearm accessories as possible and giving ATF broad authority to ban most semi-automatic firearms,” Ricketts said. “It's an unconstitutional attack on law-abiding gun owners.”

Heinrich said the bill would not ban a large amount of firearm accessories, but would ban things like Glock switches, which can be attached to the side of a Glock handgun to convert a semi-automatic pistol into a fully automatic firearm.

“I think the American people understand what common-sense gun safety looks like,” Heinrich said.

Senate procedure requires 60 votes to proceed on most legislation. But for the chamber to approve a measure by unanimous consent, no senator can object.

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Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court on Friday overturned an ATF regulation, enacted during former President Donald Trump's administration after the Las Vegas mass shooting, which defined a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a bump stock attachment as a machine gun. Machine guns are generally prohibited under federal law.

In that mass shooting, a gunman used rifles outfitted with bump stocks to fire into a crowd of 22,000 people at a music festival, killing 58 people that night and two more who died of their injuries later, and injuring more than 500.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor that the bill was needed because the Supreme Court's decision was “an utter disgrace.”

“It will endanger our communities, endanger law enforcement, and make it easier for mass shooters to unleash carnage,” Schumer, a New York Democrat, said.

The opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, who is a strong defender of Second Amendment gun rights, deemed that the ATF exceeded its statutory authority in prohibiting the sale and possession of bump stocks, which he said differed importantly from machine guns.

“Nothing changes when a semiautomatic rifle is equipped with a bump stock,” Thomas wrote. “Between every shot, the shooter must release pressure from the trigger and allow it to reset before reengaging the trigger for another shot.”

Additionally, the decision, which was split along ideological lines, limits the federal government's ability to address gun violence in the absence of congressional action.

More federal gun legislation unlikely

With a split Congress, any gun-safety related legislation is unlikely to pass. However, after Friday's decision, President Joe Biden called on Congress to ban bump stocks and assault weapons.

“Americans should not have to live in fear of this mass devastation,” Biden said at the time.

The last time Congress passed gun legislation was in 2022 after two mass shootings that occurred less than two weeks apart.

One was at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed. The other was in Buffalo, New York, where a white supremacist targeted a predominantly Black neighborhood and killed 10 Black people.

The 2022 gun safety legislation did not ban any firearms but provided funds for mental health and to help states enact red flag laws, which allow the courts to temporarily remove a firearm from an individual who is a threat to themselves or others, among other provisions.

That same year, the Supreme Court decided on a major gun-related case that invalidated a New York law against carrying a firearm in public without showing a special need for protection.

Because of that decision, there's another gun-related case before the court that will test a federal law that prevents the possession of firearms by a person who is subject to a domestic violence protective order. A decision on that is expected this month.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and X.

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Louisiana lags on electric vehicle charging program, but DOTD sees ‘no reason to rush’ • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Wesley Muller – 2024-06-19 05:00:24

by Wesley Muller, Louisiana Illuminator
June 19, 2024

Two years after receiving federal funding to build electric vehicle charging stations across the state, Louisiana has yet to ask for bids from companies that might want the money. However, state transportation officials say there is a reason for their sluggish pace. 

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD), plans to start the request-for-proposal process as soon as it identifies an appropriate “contracting mechanism” under state law to use the money, DOTD spokesperson Rodney Mallett said. 

The Federal Highway Administration allocated $73.4 million to Louisiana under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program in 2022. NEVI is a product of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that Congress approved in 2021. It included billions for state transportation agencies to build a network of rapid chargers along major highways. 

Louisiana's initial response was on par with other states. DOTD submitted its NEVI deployment plan by the federal deadline of August 2022. However, while states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and others now are disbursing the grant money or have already built some EV charging stations, Louisiana hasn't yet figured out how to spend it. 

“There's no real reason to spend two-plus years figuring out how to get this money to grant recipients when other states are already opening up chargers,” said Ryan McKinnon of the Charge Ahead Partnership, an EV charger lobby group. “Lots of states will be opening up chargers pretty soon, and it sounds like Louisiana will be sitting on the sidelines.” 

McKinnon said Louisiana is one of 11 states that have still not asked for bids to use the NEVI grant money. 

Some congressional Republicans and anti-union groups have directed their criticism at the Biden administration, claiming the delays are the result of mismanagement or of labor requirements within federal rules. Officials closest to the situation say the delays are largely because it is a new program that they want done correctly.

Mallet said the federal rules for the NEVI program don't “fit cleanly” within DOTD's usual contracting methods. DOTD often writes contracts for projects in which the agency owns and maintains the infrastructure, such as highways. In contrast, the EV charger grants will pay for the construction of infrastructure for which “ownership and operation will be transferred” from the state, in most cases, to a private entity, he said.

Although the Biden administration has aimed for a goal of building 500,000 charging stations by 2026, Mallet said the NEVI funds do not lapse, so there is no hard deadline to complete the projects.

“The key is to do it right for the long term,” Mallet said. “No reason to rush it through.”

States to receive $2.5B from feds for electric vehicle charging infrastructure

Tyler Herrmann with Louisiana Clean Fuels, a nonprofit working with DOTD on the NEVI rollout, said earlier, smaller EV charger programs saw build-outs at sites that weren't very practical. 

The chargers were often installed at public libraries or apartment complexes — places with no real interest or resources to maintain them. Without that routine maintenance, chargers would break and often stay that way for years. 

The government learned from those programs and is now taking care to avoid making those same kinds of mistakes, Herrmann said.   

“It is a unique situation,” Herrmann said of DOTD's efforts to administer the NEVI grants. “The program is pretty much completely different from what the DOTD does normally.”

In the meantime, Louisiana Clean Fuels has been working to build a workforce of technicians who can install and repair EV chargers and supply equipment.

Baton Rouge Community College just recently saw its first class of students graduate from a three-week course in which they learned some of the fundamentals required to become nationally certified Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment technicians. 

Herrmann said about a dozen students completed the first course, which will soon be offered at other community colleges across the state.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and X.

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St. Tammany’s embattled coroner targeted under new state laws • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Julie O'Donoghue – 2024-06-18 17:43:54

by Julie O'Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator
June 18, 2024

Gov. Jeff Landry has signed two new laws to weaken the authority of St. Tammany Parish's controversial coroner who is already the subject of a recall campaign. 

Dr. Christopher Tape drew scrutiny from lawmakers after a WWL-TV investigation revealed he had been accused of child sex abuse in New Mexico decades ago and then settled a lawsuit over workplace sexual harassment allegations in the past few years. Charges in the New Mexico case were quashed after the prosecutor failed to move the case forward in a timely fashion. 

Almost immediately after taking office, Tape also tried to cancel a multi-parish program housed in the St. Tammany coroner's office that provides nurses to perform sexual assault exams on victims. The service helps police collect evidence and assists Northshore district attorneys who prosecute sex crimes. 

Legislators responded to Tape's actions, as well as his refusal to resign from his job, by filing legislation to limit his power.

Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington, sponsored a new law to give the St. Tammany Parish Council greater authority over the coroner's public finances and the ability to remove any coroner convicted of violent crimes. Moving forward, candidates for St. Tammany coroner must submit records regarding their criminal background to the local clerk of court.

Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, authored a second law that allows the state attorney general to move sexual assault victim programs to another parish if the local coroner is unqualified or unwilling to perform those duties. 

In Tape's case, a transfer has already happened. Last month, the Jefferson Parish Coroner's Office took over the sexual assault examination program serving the Northshore region. The two parishes have entered into a cooperative endeavor agreement that allowed Jefferson Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich to hire the nurses who worked for the St. Tammany program.

Meanwhile, the organizers of Tape's recall must gather 35,000 signatures from qualified voters before mid-October for an election potentially forcing Tape out of office to take place.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and X.

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