This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
The first rule of writing a ballot title is to plainly, accurately and neutrally describe what the measure would do.
The second is to give voters the benefit of the doubt.
Pierce County violated the first but observed the second in settling on ballot language for three charter amendments that voters will consider in the November election.
Two critics of those proposed amendments have challenged the county in court, saying the ballot titles are confusing and prejudicial. They are half right.
The three amendments would move elections of county officials to odd-numbered years, increase term limits for the county executive and County Council members, and end the county’s experiment with ranked choice voting.
Sherry Bockwinkel, a term-limits supporter, and Kelly Haughton, who led the campaign to bring ranked choice voting to Pierce County, have filed a lawsuit against the county.
They are seeking to prohibit the county auditor and prosecuting attorney from printing ballots and voter pamphlets using the current ballot titles. They have two objections:
&bull The ballot title for Proposition 1 – which would extend the term limits of county executive and county council members – notes that the new limits would be "consistent with term limits in effect for auditor, assessor-treasurer and sheriff."
&bull All three propositions ask voters to "approve" or "reject," instead of duplicating the "yes" and "no" language used for past ballot measures.
Haughton especially has reason to be sensitive to how the county tells voters to indicate their favor or disapproval. His ranked choice voting group is opposing Proposition 3 and has already ordered signs that read "No on 3."
He should have more faith in voters. They’re smart enough to figure out that "yes" equals "approve" and "no" means "reject."
The weightier concern is with the language on Proposition 1. Noting that other county officials already have longer term limits is indeed a factual statement; it also is a selling point.
A ballot measure can have an inherently influential title; a straightforward description of a proposal to cut taxes in half might always sound enticing.
The problem with the county’s wording is it doesn’t much matter how long the county auditor can be in office. That’s not what voters will decide in November.
The only reason to include the information about other county offices is to convince voters that letting county executives and council members stick around longer is the logical and orderly thing to do. Consistency is a persuasive argument, especially in matters of governance.
County officials contend that they followed statutory guidelines in writing the ballot titles. They’ll make their case to a Pierce County Superior Court judge on Monday.
The county could win on the legal merits. But just because it can do something doesn’t mean it should. It’s wrong to use the ballot to promote a proposal that’s near and dear to elected officials who see their term limits coming due.
The county’s lawyers, win or lose in court this week, should rewrite the ballot title for Proposition 1.