Alabama voters having to decide on
amendments that don't affect them
and that they know very little about is
anything but euphoric
The Birmingham News
Sunday, November 09, 2008

Five days removed from an historic Election Day, the euphoria continues.

Alabama voters flocked to the polls in record numbers and made monumental decisions, like whether to raise court costs in Russell County, whether to expand the number of people who can elect two members of the Utilities Board of Tuskegee, and whether to prohibit cities outside Blount County from annexing any part of the county without voter approval. Does it get any bigger, any better, than that?

OK, we'll dial down the sarcasm. Yes, those things are important to the people who live in those areas, but that's the point: Those things are important only to the people who live in those areas.

Why should any voter in Alabama who doesn't live there, doesn't care a whit, have to confront those issues on the Election Day ballot as proposed constitutional amendments? For that matter, why should those sorts of issues even have to go before voters, rather than letting local governments decide them?

It's because of the 1901 Constitution of Alabama. The constitution virtually ensures that proposed amendments will clutter ballots. Its drafters, because they so distrusted the people and local government, wanted to hoard power in Montgomery. They gave little power to local governments, especially counties. Most counties in Alabama have no home rule, or the ability to fully govern themselves, except for the handful that have been granted it - by constitutional amendment, of course.

It is why our constitution, which is supposed to be a fundamental charter between a government and its citizens that outlines citizens' rights and government's broad structure and principles, bulges with more than 800 amendments. It also explains most of Tuesday's six proposed statewide amendments (only one of which, Amendment 1, had statewide effect) and the 29 local amendments voted on only in specific counties.

Every local amendment and most of the statewide ones required officials from a county or city to ask their lawmakers to shepherd a bill through the Legislature. Sometimes, lawmakers approve a proposed amendment; other times, not.

If the Legislature doesn't pass an amendment unanimously with three-fifths of its members voting, and a majority of the Local Constitutional Amendment Commission doesn't approve it, a local amendment ends up on the statewide ballot. That's why Tuesday's ballot asked voters statewide to make decisions affecting only Shelby, Blount and Russell counties, and the cities of Madison and Tuskegee.

Often, voters in a city or county will overwhelmingly approve a proposed amendment affecting just them, only to see voters around the state defeat it. That means starting over.

Even worse, affected voters can turn something down, only to have statewide voters force something on them they don't want. Tuesday, statewide voters decided some residents of Limestone County should pay higher property taxes to fund schools in the city of Madison, even though that county's voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposed amendment.

These exercises in "random blind voting," as Athens State University political scientist Jess Brown referred to the Limestone County outcome, are governments at their most inefficient, ineffective and unfair. It will continue to be so, until Alabamians write a new constitution.

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