A ballot title is what you read when you vote on a ballot question. Ballot titles like push polls can result in huge differences in how voters perceive an issue at the moment when they must make a choice. In the case of recall, millage, or referendum most state statutes give fairly strict guidelines on how the question must appear on the ballot. Shall X be approved? Shall John Doe be recalled from office for XYZ?
However when it comes to the initiative process writing a ballot title can be much more subjective. The law is different in every state and ballot titles are most commonly written in one of three ways:
State or local elections official or their agent, this might be the Attorney General, Secretary of State, or city clerk.
Legislative body, the legislature, city council, or county commission.
Proponents of the initiative, the group circulating petitions to call for an election on a particular initiative.
Problems occur when a ballot title appears biased. When the ballot title appears to make a yes or no vote sound more appealing, or is outright deceptive in explanation of the issue, people on the other side of the issue will justifiably take offense. In many cases this results in expensive lawsuits and people without deep pockets are at a huge disadvantage. Groups may spend tens of thousands of dollars only to have courts rule against them despite obvious bias.
This week a judge in Mississippi ruled that the legislature had crafted a ballot title that was deceptive.
“Judge Winston Kidd ruled in favor of Adrian Shipman, a mother of two in the Oxford Public Schools, that the legislature’s alternative language was too confusing and too similar to the original citizen’s initiative language. Kidd has ordered that language to be changed. The new alternative language, which was not immediately available, would follow a suggestion offered by Better Schools, Better Jobs, the group that worked to put the initiative on the ballot for this November.“
The easiest remedy to this issue is to let voters read the entire measure on the ballot, but often lengthy legislation makes this impractical (I consider lengthy legislation a problem on its own).