SADOW: 14 Constitutional Amendments Is Far Too Many

Yes, voters are getting plenty of rest ahead of Nov. 4, in order to complete the sprint that will be required of them to get through the ballot in the state-law-allotted time, while dreaming about how there has to be a better way of doing this – and there is.

When I hit my precinct sometime that day, I’ll have 24 items on which to make a selection. State law gives you exactly 3 minutes to make your marks (if not disabled), or for me a grand total of 7.5 seconds each. Some jurisdictions may have as few as six seconds apiece.

The real inflator here is the 14 constitutional amendments (voting recommendations here), the most since 2003 but still shy of the Oct. 3, 1998 record of 18 (and two more were considered on Nov. 3 of that year). That election featured only amendments, but three others with partisan contests on theirs had as many as 15 propositions to amend (these records set relevant to the latest 1974 Constitution). With thefourth longest constitution among the states, the element of distrust of government and politicians within Louisiana’s political culture encouraged throwing everything possible into the Constitution rather than by accomplishing these things by statute, and thus picayunish things often have to be addressed by the voters if they wish to make policy changes.

But given the time limit, inflating the ballot with so many amendments makes voting less an act of cognition (excepting that subset of voters for whom it already isn’t) than one of manual dexterity (even as elections commissioners don’t rigidly enforce the law). Regardless of any time limit, voters certainly could benefit from having fewer items on the ballot at any given time to prevent fatigue in considering them. Statistics bear this out.

In the Oct. 4, 2003 election, rolloff (the difference between ballot items listed higher and lower) from the governor’s contest to the first listed amendment was 273,000 or a fifth of the electorate and to the lowest total of the amendments of 338,000 votes or a quarter of the electorate, while another statewide office election with 15 items, Oct. 21, 1995 saw rolloff for the same comparisons respectively of 238,000 or 16 percent and 340,000 or 23 percent. By contrast, the Nov. 5, 1996 ballot that had just three items from the presidential contest to the highest-receiving item of had a difference of 348,000 or 19.5 percent and 426,000 or 24 percent to the lowest-receiving, and the Oct. 20, 2007 gubernatorial-led slate with four items produced differences, respectively, of 153,000 or 12 percent and of 203,000 or 16 percent. These extreme data points suggest that the fewer items on a ballot led by a high-profile office (within 12 years of each other) the less rolloff there is from amendments to the office topping the ballot and from among them.

What Louisiana could do is (naturally) amend its constitution to limit the number of items that could be proposed in any given election. Four states presently do this, although only one of them, Arkansas, has a constitution even approaching Louisiana’s in length (at almost 60,000 words, it’s about 10,000 fewer words). Even so, the fact that Louisiana may hold special elections just for amendments (which is partly why there are so many in 2014; with no state or federal elections in 2013, lawmakers passed on what would have been a special election for many jurisdictions last fall for the several amendments already proposed by then to save money and aggravation), so a limit would not block an urgent perceived need to amend.

Yet shortening the ballot for voters’ sake is not the only commendable reason for amendment limits. By placing such a constraint, this will make legislators think more carefully about introducing and advancing legislation designed to amend. It will discourage trivial attempts and give legislators more time to concentrate on more important matters, such as reading budgets carefully or understanding the impact of pieces of legislation, failures for which they recently have received criticism.

There also are other changes that could keep amendment clutter off of ballots. Other states have provisions such as only a certain number of sections in the Constitution can be amended at one time or that the measure must be passed in successive sessions before going to a popular vote (which could allow for worthy items that can’t make a limited ballot to be put into a bullpen where if worthy enough again can make it next year). Even though Louisiana law gives voters an option to ameliorate compression by not prohibiting them from bringing in information not electioneering for parties or candidates about amendments to the voting booth, such as a checklist of amendment choices, these can’t substitute for giving voters fewer measures over which to ponder.

Placing a limit of perhaps five amendments on a ballot would serve less discouraging to voters in making a studied analysis of the measures, thus increasing the chances of improved deliberation and thereby decision-making and not providing increased incentive to roll off. It would ensure that worthy and important items make the ballot while reducing clutter from low-priority or trivial matters. Hopefully this amendment will appear on next fall’s ballot and that this future election be the last one without limits.

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