Use technology to make murky ballot issues transparent
Written by Michael Lewis on October 8, 2014
On election day, reflect on the adage “never buy a pig in a poke” – know what you’re buying before you say yes.
We try to do that when we buy a car. We poke a nose under the hood and pretend to understand what the salesman is showing us.
But when we make vital choices at the voting booth we often don’t look beyond flashy packaging.
That’s understandable with candidates. What they tell us is meant to persuade or mislead. Like a walk in front of funhouse mirrors, warped images come with the territory. Who was the last candidate to make an opponent look normal?
But it shouldn’t be the case when government asks us to vote yes or no. Officials shouldn’t cover up facts or mislead us.
Yet ballot issues often obscure impact. Even worse, too often we’re asked to vote now and let officials decide later what our vote actually meant.
Such votes are blank checks for officials to fill in when they decide what they plan to do. In a democracy, there should be a better way.
First off, we’re asked only what fits in 75 words. Only this year did the county decide that voters must learn in those 75 words if an OK will affect their taxes, but there’s still no mandate to reveal a project’s cost, interest on bonds, or how much per $100,000 valuation a project would cost taxpayers.
We’re just writing a blank check. We get no control unless we flat vote no. That’s a shame, because many projects on ballots are worthwhile – depending on how our check is used.
And no matter how much officials may promise about the project, only what’s on the ballot matters. Even if officials try to keep their word, someone else later on will use the authority we hand over.
Miamians, for example, were promised a museum when they OK’d a mega-yacht marina and hotels on Watson Island 13 years ago. But nothing has happened with the project, and current plans never mention a museum. That was window dressing.
Look at the sales tax we levied a decade ago to add transit. Backers pledged a trust would oversee the money, but commissioners spent most of it before they set up the trust, and they used it for things other than the promised transit.
To illustrate, look at the ballot you’ll mark Nov. 4.
You’ll be asked to let the county borrow $393 million to acquire and construct a new courthouse and repair the old one. You’ll also be told that legal interest rates will apply and that your taxes will repay that money.
But it’s what you aren’t told that’s vital. Things like whether the county will partner with a developer on the courthouse – Florida East Coast Industries has been talking about the job. And where the building will sit, and whether the county or developer will own it. And its size. And what interest will be – the legal limit is 25%. Or how much will go to fix the old courthouse and what its use will then be.
Most relevant, how much per $100,000 assessed valuation would a taxpayer pay, in total and per year, to repay those bonds?
Taxpayers aren’t just being asked to buy a pig in this poke, they’re not told how much the pig would cost. It’s not that it’s necessarily a bad deal, it’s that we’re given no idea at all what the deal is.
On the other hand, when you bought that car you not only got to see the engine but you read in detail your payments.
Another question on the ballot would allow Florida International University to expand onto the adjacent Dade County Youth Fair site and require the fair to relocate, specifying only that county funds won’t be used for either relocation or expansion.
Again, it’s the vital facts that you won’t get.
If the county doesn’t have to pay for the fair to move and start over, who does? The university in the ballot language isn’t on the hook for a penny.
And while the ballot says the fair must move, where will it go? The county has been hunting for years for a site. Has one been found? Or is it a simple eviction?
And if it isn’t a simple eviction – remember, the fair has decades to go on its lease for the county land – what deal will be cut? Who will finance that deal? The fair doesn’t want to be homeless and it does have a binding lease.
Then, too, what will FIU do with the 64 acres and who will fund that growth? The ballot says nothing about tuition hikes – FIU promises not to raise tuition for this plan, but that’s not binding. It rests entirely on goodwill. We know nothing is free, but voters are left in the dark about who will fund an expansion and relocation.
Commissioners in debating in January putting on ballots even the fact that property taxes are involved in general obligation bonds made clear that many measures would fail if voters knew the cost to them.
But somehow, somewhere voters need details – binding details, not window dressing and promises for which nobody is formally accountable – to detail what they’re voting on.
Don’t look to campaign literature for aid. A brochure seeking a yes vote on FIU’s expansion cites wonders that growth would do but answers no questions. In fact, it never mentions the Youth Fair, though that’s what’s at issue. Talk about lack of intellectual honesty.
A four-page mailer asking for support of courthouse bonds is as bad. It simply cites a “crisis” and skirts every relevant issue. Lawyers, like academicians, seem unwilling to tell the whole story.
No, proponents won’t tell you. And don’t count on the press either, because key decisions will leak out only after voters approve. We hand over carte blanche and then we’re told what we’ve OK’d.
Why isn’t it the other way around?
Why aren’t proponents required to file a full plan that’s linked to the 75-word ballot question and becomes part and parcel of what voters approve? While that wouldn’t have worked decades ago, voters could now use smart phones on election day for full details that are part of a ballot issue before signing what is now a blank check.
For democracy to succeed, it’s vital that ballot questions be full, fair and complete – and that promises become tied by law to results at the ballot box.
As it is, the expansion of FIU and displacement of the youth fair, or the renovation of the old courthouse and parallel construction of a new one, might be the best courses and merit our approval.
Or they might not.
We can’t tell because we get far too few facts to judge – and what we get is too biased to trust.
So our choice is to either write blank checks because we hope folks will do right by us or vote no until they detail their plans in writing.
Democracy is imperfect, granted, but it shouldn’t be this imperfect. We need a far better way to let voters know exactly what they’re voting on and what it means to them. Today’s technology should fill in the blanks.