January 09, 2007

Arizona: What's a Decimal Point Between Friends?

For advocates of fair and sustainable taxation, it was the "perfect storm." In their wisdom, Arizona policymakers decided not only that it was worth trying to gain support for a 80-cents-per pack cigarette tax hike to pay for early education, but that instead of just passing a law, they should let the people vote on it.

The story would be bad enough if it ended right there: using rapidly-vanishing cig tax revenues to fund ongoing expenses is dumb. And asking voters to ratify such a move rather than passing regular legislation is downright cowardly.

But it gets worse. When the state published the official text of the ballot measure, Proposition 203, it misprinted the size of the proposed tax hike. Instead of calling it an 80 cent hike, the state's official description called it a ".80 cent" hike. As in, 0.8 cents per pack. Check out the incorrect ballot measure text on our website here (incorrect part is highlighted in yellow.)

On November 7, Arizona voters approved the measure handily, and on December 8 the new 80 cents-per-pack tax hike went into effect. Almost immediately, the folks at cigarette manufacturer RJ Reynolds cried foul, pointing out that the state had implemented a tax hike 100 times bigger than what voters had approved.

The Arizona Attorney General has ruled that the misprint on the ballot text doesn't matter, and that the full 80 cent hike can go into effect. Read the AG's opinion here. His rationale, in brief, is this:

1) the language of the actual ballot initiative (which covers 9 pages of small-print text, read it here) says very clearly that the cigarette tax hike is supposed to be 80 cents per pack. And every voter got, in the mail, a voter's guide that included the full text of the initiative as well as the (incorrect) shorter description of the initiative.
2) What voters see on the ballot is an (incorrect) description of the initiative, not the initiative itself.
3) But when voters cast their ballot, they're not voting for the description: they're voting for the actual initiative. As the AG sniffs, "the ballot description is not enacted into law; it is merely a description of the proposed law, not the law itself."
4) Ergo, the thing voters ratified on November 7 was NOT the proposal they read about on the actual ballot-- it was the thing that appeared in the ballot measure itself, which voters hopefully read about when they read the entire 240-page voter's guide (download it here if you've got a fast 'Net connection)

If this seems absurd, well, welcome to the world of direct democracy. When you try to compress a nine-page legal document into a paragraph that non-lawyers can read and understand in 30 seconds in a voting booth, things are more likely to go wrong than to go right. And in the case of Arizona's Proposition 203, they clearly went pretty wrong.

I'm a big fan of early education. But I'm also a fan of doing things right. And it seems to me that when voters are voting on something other than what's actually printed on the ballot, the result simply shouldn't count.

Am I wrong?


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