In the Internet Age, Rhode Island style voter information handbooks have become a First Amendment archaism, in the way the government-imposed Fairness Doctrine became after Americans got access to dozens of TV channels.

It has become absurd to let a single politician secretly write an “objective” voter information guide about controversial referendum questions, and then use taxpayer money and the prestige of his office to distribute it to every registered voter shortly before an election.

Consider the periodic constitutional convention referendum, Question No. 3 on the Nov. 4 ballot. The secretary of state is tasked with writing “a brief explanation of the measure” for the 2014 Voter Information Handbook. It is arguably an impossible task, but he has not acquitted himself well.

Rhode Island’s Constitution mandates that, every 10 years, the public be granted an opportunity to vote on whether to convene a constitutional convention. It also mandates that prior to that vote, the legislature appoint a preparatory commission “to assemble information on constitutional questions for the electors.”

No law requires that a secretary of state defer to the resulting commission report in drafting his handbook, but since 2004 this has been the practice. The commission has evolved into a thinly disguised arm of the legislative leadership, which appoints all 12 commissioners, including eight legislators. The handbook, in turn, has become a reflection of the commission’s anti-convention bias.

For example, nowhere in either the 2014 Commission Report or 2014 Voter Information Handbook is there an explanation of the unique democratic function of the periodic constitutional convention referendum, which is to implement Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution granting “the right of the people to make and alter their [constitution].”

With legislatively initiated constitutional revision this right is only partially realized because the people are only granted the right to vote on constitutional alterations the legislature proposes. But the legislature may have a conflict of interest in placing certain popular democratic reforms on the ballot. Examples include expanding the powers of the executive and judiciary, and legislative redistricting, ethics, and term limits.

Similarly, the Handbook’s cost analysis, mimicking the Report’s, is slanted. The law only requires cost estimates for bond referendums, so any estimate for another referendum type is inherently biased when provided inconsistently.​

At the commission’s three public hearings, convention opponents emphasized costs, whereas supporters emphasized benefits. But only the opponents’ arguments were included in the Report and Handbook. As supporters observed, the legislature justified the 1973 Convention’s $20,000 cost by the millions of dollars in new gambling tax revenue it would generate. Similarly, supporters argued that the cost savings from merely adding a gubernatorial line-item veto to the Constitution could repay a future convention’s cost many times over.

The Handbook chose to use the Commission Report’s $2.5 million estimated cost of voting yes on the Nov. 4 referendum. But that estimate was approved by the Commission at its last meeting without an opportunity for the public to see or comment on the assumptions on which it was based.

Yet the Commission’s assumptions are suspect. The $2.5 million was presented as an extrapolation from the $891,000 cost of the 1986 Convention. But in inflation-adjusted dollars, $891,000 is now only $1.94 million. And since the size of the convention would be reduced from 100 to 75 delegates, that estimate could arguably be reduced by 25 percent to $1.45 million. Whereas the cost estimate for the 1973 Convention excluded the cost of using the State House and legislative staff, now the costs of a location and staff were added without specific numbers or general explanation.

For relatively straightforward bond referendums, the current voter information handbook process may work reasonably well. But for other types of referendums, such as for Question No. 3, the current process concentrates too much power in the secretary of state.

Advocates pro and con that receive a minimal number of petition signatures should be allowed to submit their own explanations to the Secretary of State, which could then publish them on his website. From this and other data, search engines that compile ratings and the press that create them could highlight the most useful pro and con statements and allow voters to compile their own voter guide.

This type of decentralized control over information is the best type of future platform on which to build a well-informed electorate. In the 21st century, the type of abuses that have characterized the old-fashioned 2014 Voter Information Handbook should become a distant memory.

–J.H. Snider and Beverly Clay maintain the website.

Source: Snider, J.H. and Beverly Clay, R.I. handbook shows blatant bias, Providence Journal, September 25, 2014.