In November, New York voters are scheduled to vote on a referendum that would allow several new casino resorts to be built throughout the state. But if one Brooklyn lawyer is successful, that referendum will be halted due to language in the ballot question that he claims violates state law.
Referendum Language Questioned
The language in the referendum includes a number of “legislative purposes” that paint the proposal in an unmistakably positive light. For instance, the question mentions “promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools and permitting local governments to lower property taxes.” That language was approved by the State Board of Elections in July.
But now, lawyer Eric J. Snyder is contending that the language in the bill violates New York law. According to a lawsuit filed in the New York State Supreme Court, Snyder alleges that the language violates the State Constitution’s prohibition on the use of public money in the aid of “private undertakings.”
“The Constitution is pretty clear that you can’t use public money to sway or influence a vote,” Snyder said.
Snyder isn’t the only one who has brought up issues with the language in the referendum. Many government watchdog groups also see it as one-sided, and religious groups have also noted the language used when telling parishioners to consider social ills that could come along with the advertised benefits of casino expansion.
Interestingly, the original language in the referendum didn’t mention any of the benefits that are set to appear in the final ballot question. When the first draft came from the state attorney general’s office, the language was more direct and didn’t include the legislative purposes. Those showed up only after the Board of Elections changed the wording, after what co-chairman Douglas Kellner said were “extensive discussions.”
Wording Can Affect Outcome, Historically Speaking
The language of a ballot question may seem like a trivial thing to battle over, but history has shown time and again that even minor changes to the name or wording of legislation can have a major impact on public opinion, and that has proven true once again in this case.
According to a poll by Siena College, 55% of New York voters were in favor of the referendum when they were read the question as it is scheduled to appear on the November 5 ballot, with 42% opposed. But when voters were instead asked a similar question with more neutral language, they were evenly divided on the issue.
That “advocating language” is what Snyder – who also opposes casino expansion personally – says should cause the court to enjoin voting on the bill until more neutral language was put in its place.
“It is partisan, and it is having an effect,” Snyder said. “And that’s not the government’s role.”
Despite the promising poll numbers, the success of the referendum is in some doubt regardless of the language used. With no statewide elections set for November, turnout is likely to be low in most towns. But in New York City, a contested mayor’s race will likely lead to higher turnout there – and voters in the city are more skeptical about the casino expansion than voters in the rest of the state.