In an effort to prohibit misleading ballot language going on voters’ ballots, one lawmaker filed legislation to force a review of the language by an administrative judge.

State Sen. Joan Huffman (R–Southside Place) filed Senate Bill 323, which had its first hearing in her State Affairs Committee on Monday. The bill would require local governments to submit ballot language and a statement of purpose to the regional presiding judge of the judicial region they are in.

Under the bill, the ballot language would have to be submitted no later than 109 days before an election, then the presiding judge will appoint a three-judge panel to review the proposition before the election.

If the panel approves the language, the election proceeds. If they reject it or fail to come to a conclusion, the language cannot be used on the ballot. The bill gives the panel power to draft new language themselves that they deem “clear and understandable,” but it doesn’t require them to do so, which could stop the local government from holding an election at all. That part didn’t sit well with some who went to Austin to testify on the bill—one even called it a “proposition poison pill.”

Huffman’s legislation stems from repeated attempts by local governments to tweak ballot language in such a way as to get a desired response. One of the most notable instances of this was during the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance election.

After the measure was approved for the ballot by city council, it was challenged on the basis of being misleading. The language the city approved would have forced voters to vote “no” to indicate support and “yes” to indicate opposition. The state Supreme Court ruled that it needed to be rewritten.

The city was also sued over its drainage fee proposition. The Supreme Court again ruled in favor of those challenging the proposition and a new election was called.

Local governments often attempt to impede the citizen petition process, and when that doesn’t work, they resort to misleading ballot language. If Huffman makes the suggested changes and the bill passes, it would lend some transparency to the process of petitioning government and add another check and balance to the power of local government.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.


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