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What’s in a name? When titling initiatives, not much

Citizen Staff Writer

I know it’s early, but I’ve already decided to collect signatures for an initiative on the 2010 Arizona ballot.

The name of the initiative is set: The Free Cookies for All Act.

What’s the initiative about? Who cares? I haven’t decided yet. I have the title, so I’ll come up with the initiative later.

It won’t have anything to do with cookies. Or with free stuff. But The Free Cookies for All Act is a catchy name, and I’m sure people will vote for it once I send out literature that includes the name of my initiative.

Maybe it will be an initiative on property taxes. Or smoking. Or gay marriage (that seems to be a regular thing). Maybe something to do with illegal immigrants.

It doesn’t really matter. The title is all that counts. People will hear about free cookies, and who could possibly be opposed?

Sadly, there is no Free Cookies for All Act on next month’s general election ballot. But there are a bunch of propositions that are similar: The name of the measure is designed to tweak your interest and keep you from digging deeper into the real meaning of what you’ll be voting on.

In most cases, it’s outright dishonesty. Supporters of the propositions know they are peddling an unpopular cause, so they slap on a misleading label and hope that does the sales job.

Arizona is hardly alone in permitting this – but we do it better (or worse) than anyone else, one expert in the field says.

“Arizona has one of the worst systems in the nation for selecting titles,” said Joel Foster. He is deputy executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, based in Washington, D.C.

But Joe Kanefield, Arizona state elections director, says it’s not his fault. He agrees some initiative titles are misleading – but he says the state constitution prevents him from doing anything about it.

“They are required to have a title,” Kanefield said of initiatives. But the state constitution “doesn’t specify whether the title has to be accurate.”

Take a look at some of the initiatives on this year’s ballot. Clearly accuracy was not a paramount concern when a title was chosen:

• Prop. 101 is Medical Choice for Arizona. But it actually would limit some possible future medical choices.

• Prop. 105 is Majority Rules – Let the People Decide. The initiative would actually allow people who don’t vote to decide. Propositions that involved spending money would have to win the support of a majority of all voters – not just all voters who vote. The majority who voted wouldn’t get to decide.

• Prop. 200 is the real doozy. It’s called the Payday Loan Reform Act. But the only real reform it includes is allowing payday loan operators to stay in business instead of being forced to close shop, as current law requires. Payday loan operators knew they wouldn’t stand a chance calling their initiative the Payday Loan Preservation Act, which would have been accurate.

• Prop. 202 is called Stop Illegal Hiring. But it makes changes to the state’s employer sanctions law – which has stopped a lot of illegal hiring – to make it less stringent.

There is a common goal. The idea is to come up with a title that elicits a positive response. Yes, we want payday loan reform! Yes, we want medical choice! And yes, we want illegal hiring stopped!

The tobacco industry is the recognized expert in initiative obfuscation – in Arizona and elsewhere. In 2006, the industry placed and financed the Arizona Non-Smoker Protection Act. It didn’t protect nonsmokers. It would have allowed smoking in many indoor places – but was defeated by the more strict Smoke Free Arizona initiative placed by the health care industry.

Foster, of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, says Colorado does it right when it comes to the titles of ballot initiatives. There are public hearings to gather views on the accuracy of titles and an appeal process before a final decision is made.

“Arizona really should consider some reforms,” Foster said, “to make titles as clear or as unambiguous as possible.”

That would require a change to the state constitution, Kanefield said. And that would require – of course – a ballot initiative. And a title.

Maybe that’s what should be called The Free Cookies for All Act. Use a misleading title to prohibit the use of misleading titles.

Mark Kimble appears at 6:30 p.m. Fridays on “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. He may be reached at mkimble@tucsoncitizen.com or 573-4662.



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