If an initiative’s ballot title promises free puppies to all voters, but its language actually calls for expanding puppy mills, should the proposal be allowed to remain on the ballot?
That question, posed Thursday by a judge on the Missouri Supreme Court, gets at the heart of the court fight to decide whether a proposal to increase Missouri’s tobacco tax by $1.27 a pack can remain on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Both sides argued before the high court early Thursday. A ruling is expected within days.
Opponents of the tax proposal contend it must be tossed off the ballot because an appeals court revised the wording of the ballot title after the initiative’s signatures had been turned in.
The faulty title, which had been approved by the secretary of state’s office, was on the petitions used to collect the signatures.
Jane Dueker, the lawyer for Raise Your Hand For Kids, the group proposing the tax hike, contended that the state constitution doesn’t require a ballot title on initiatives if the full ballot proposal is included on the signature petitions.
Tossing out the tax proposal now, she said, would unfairly penalize the public and the 300,000 voters who had signed the petitions to get it on the ballot. Dueker contended that there should be no problem since voters on Nov. 8 will see the correct ballot title when they cast their decision on the ballot proposal.
But Chuck Hatfield, who represents the opponents, asserted that that allowing the proposal to remain on the ballot could set a precedent that could encourage other initiative gatherers or the secretary of state to knowingly use faulty ballot titles to mislead petition signers so that a potentially questionable proposal could get on the ballot.
For argument’s sake, the judges on the state’s seven-member Supreme Court appeared to be of two minds. Judge Richard B. Teitelman asked whether it might be better if the court ruled on the legality of ballot proposals after they’ve gone before voters. The court’s actions in the past have been mixed, with some before and some after elections.
But then Judge James Dowd, an appeals-court judge filling in for Supreme Court Judge Laura Denvir Stith, brought up the hypothetical puppy analogy.
Hatfield embraced that observation to bolster his case, while Dueker maintained that the real issue was whether the full and accurate ballot proposal had been available to the petition signers.