On numerous occasions the Texas Supreme Court has struck down ballot language used by the City of Houston to mislead voters on a ballot proposition, but a recently filed bipartisan bill is hoping to end that local government game.

State Sens. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) filed Senate Bill 488, dubbed the Texas Ballot Integrity Act, to prevent local governments from “misleading voters at the polls with deceptive ballot language, spending taxpayer money to ignore lawfully collect petition signatures, and suppressing petitions signed by those they are sworn to represent.”

Specifically, the bill would require:

Clear Ballot Language – in the case of Houston’s drainage fee also known as the “Rain Tax,” citizens sued the city claiming that the ballot language did not clearly state they were voting for a new tax, rather the proposition called for a “pay-as-you-go plan.”

A Court to Rewrite Ballot Language – if found misleading or inaccurate, the court would be able to rewrite ballot language, whereas, now they send it back down to be rewritten by the same municipal government officials that attempted to deceive the public in the first place.

Standardized Petitions – it is currently difficult and costly for citizens to petition local governments. Even when they do jump through the cost-prohibitive hurdles, many times they will have their signatures wrongfully invalidated as with the case of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. This will ensure that as long as the state-set standard is met, petitioners’ rights will not be violated.

Rocket Docket – some say that slow justice is no justice, and that is no more apparent than when it comes to ballot competitions. When ballot language is challenged, it can be a long and arduous process as it makes its way through the court system, and for it to be effective an answer must be handed down well before election day. This reform would expedite the court’s review of the ballot as to not interfere with an election.

Loser Pays –this would ensure that the victor is reimbursed for court costs. Often citizens are discouraged from challenging their municipal governments because of the costs. Those who do, often find themselves spending more money than should be necessary to make a city follow the law.

Bettencourt said, “In some cases, Houston residents were required to spend more than $300,000 of their own money just to get city officials to follow the law.”

This bill would not only protect the integrity of the ballot process, but of a citizen’s right to petition their government. That right has far too often been infringed on by city’s whose only way of advancing a cause is to trick the electorate into voting one way. It’s time for free and fair elections again.

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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.