Dorchester County was in dire need of new parks and libraries three years ago, which is why voters gave an overwhelming 60 percent support in a referendum to borrow money to build two libraries, two parks and hiking, biking and pedestrian trails throughout the county
It still needs them today — and possibly more — which is why county officials need to absorb the unambiguous and unanimous Supreme Court order that struck down their 2016 referendum, and get to work putting the questions back on the ballot. The operative word there, by the way, is “questions.” Plural.
We don’t have any reason to believe that voters were confused by the ballot question, which asked them to approve a $30 million bond issue for libraries and $13 million in bonds for parks. We don’t have any reason to believe the vote would have come out differently if the questions had been separated, although obviously we can’t know for sure.
Contrary to the impression given by a lower-court ruling in favor of the county, what’s at issue here isn’t whether people were confused or the results were skewed. It’s whether the law was obeyed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
State law, court precedents and the state constitution all contain the general principle of fair play that the referendum ignored: You can’t give voters an all-or-nothing question that involves more than one topic. As the court explained: “Each proposition should be stated separately and distinctly, so that a voter may declare his or her opinion as to each matter separately.”
Even lawmakers have the right to ask that a matter they’re about to vote on be divided into separate questions if those elements can stand on their own. And they frequently ask — as voters did in this case.
It’s true that there is sometimes a gray area about what constitutes a separate topic. But it’s generally understood that while you can ask voters to say yes or no to a package of, say, several road construction projects, you can’t ask them to say yes or no to a package of road construction projects and library construction projects. Or library projects and park projects, even though both loosely could be construed as quality-of-life issues. Indeed, even if county officials hadn’t understood that, an attorney general’s opinion prior to the vote underscored that point.
What’s baffling is that the county chose to write an all-or-nothing question when it would have been so easy to separate the question, and when there was no apparent advantage to not doing that. Unfortunately, there are abundant examples of local governments across the state being careless about following the law when it comes to holding public referendums.
Unfortunately too, local governments don’t like to admit their mistakes. We’ve already seen one councilman framing this as the court undermining the will of the public. That is simply not true, but making that argument truly does undermine something important: public trust in our government. For many, it undermines trust in the courts. For those who know better, it undermines trust in their local government.
The Dorchester County Council has an obligation to own up to its mistake, to explain that while it wants to obey voters’ will, it simply made a mistake that the court correctly called it on. Then it needs to hold a new referendum that complies with the law. And voters should approve both questions.