Call for Fair Language When it Comes to Referendums

By Assemblyman Will Barclay
This past election, voters were asked to authorize that our  State Constitution be amended to allow for the construction of up to seven casinos in New York State.

Voters approved the measure by a 57% to 43% margin. It was one of the most controversial referendums in recent history. Not only was the measure itself controversial, but the language explaining the referendum was also controversial because it was written in a manner that arguably was meant to influence voters to support its passage.

Language used on the ballot to explain constitutional amendments should be clear and not written to influence voters’ opinion on the matter one way or another. Otherwise, a voter can be misled by what impacts the proposed amendment will have on the state.

Unfortunately, as a result of the casino amendment, we now need to look at enacting a law that would prevent language explaining the amendment to be written in a way to persuade voters to support the amendment.

Here is how the gambling referendum appeared on the ballot: The proposed amendment to section 9 of article 1 of the Constitution would allow the Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York State for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated. Shall the amendment be approved?

Prior to the election, the casino referendum was criticized, and rightfully so, for being too pro-Casino. It was widely known that the Governor supported casino gaming. In fact, just days before the vote, registered voters received robocalls from the Governor, urging those who listened to vote Yes on his pre-recorded message.

To give a little background, the Attorney General submitted recommended wording to the State Board of Elections. According to news reports, the referendum language was rewritten under consultation with the Governor’s administration.

Much of the claims in the referendum are subjective. We’re not sure how much of an economic impact this will have, or if it will allow local governments to lower property taxes, or how much of an impact casino gaming will have on state aid for education. I did not support the referendum because our region will not benefit from a casino because of agreements made with the Oneida Indians.

Regardless, the language presented to the public should not have contained a list of potential “pros” of casino gaming. In fact, a lawyer from Brooklyn filed a lawsuit to try and have the referendum re-worded, but the judge threw the suit out, saying it was filed too late into the election process. Therefore, voters were left with the biased referendum on the ballot.

According to election law, campaigning is not allowed within 100 feet of the polling place. This fall we, in a sense, allowed campaigning IN the ballot box itself. To ensure that such a referendum is not placed in front of the voting public again, I am sponsoring legislation that will make it a law to have unbiased language for future referendums.

Again, this is common sense legislation, but as we know, sometimes in Albany, common sense does not always prevail. Therefore, we need to spell it out so there are no questions the next time around.

If you have any questions, comments or would like to be added to my mailing list, please sent a letter to 200 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, or an e-mail to [email protected] or call (315) 598-5185.

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