"Idiot Amendment" Could Confuse Voters
An amendment on this fall’s ballot will more than likely accomplish its short-term goal of modernizing the Iowa Constitution’s language. But in the short term it’s likely to produce a fair share of insensitive humor, and a fair amount of voter confusion.
The so-called “Idiot amendment” would delete the words “idiot” and “insane” from the Constitution’s section on voting rights, replacing them with the more PC phrase “mentally incompetent.” The amendment is the brainchild of Rep. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, who the mother of a child with a mental disability.
This fall’s vote is the culmination of ten year’s effort for Jochum, but the wording could have been enshrined into the constitution already. The office of then Secretary of State Chet Culver failed to publish notice of the Amendment after it passed the Legislature in 2004. In another error, the Chief House Clerk published only part, not all, of the amendment in the House Journal. Those mistakes pushed the vote back to this fall.
The amendment was briefly the subject of a debate dust-up in the 2006 gubernatorial primary, when candidate Mike Blouin brought up the failure to publish as a question of Culver’s competence.
The delay means that the amendment has been pushed from the gubernatorial election, with its relatively less turnout, into this year and what’s likely to be the highest turnout presidential election ever. And obscure items like this have a history of confusing voters. An amendment removing references to dueling from the Constitution was on the ballot in 1992 at the behest of the late Rep, Clay Spear, who was known to fellow legislators for scouring the law for such anachronisms.
It passed overwhelmingly, but not without a lot of confusion. Auditors had trouble answering basic questions, even if asked in jest, such as “if you’re in favor of dueling, do you vote yes or no?” Answer: if you believed people who participated in duels should be allowed public office in Iowa, you would have voted yes. But that straight answer could be seen as an attempt to persuade voters.
The relative handful of voters who still want to “study the issues” will be frustrated, because there is likely to be little campaigning and next to no information available. Voters who worry that their vote for president won’t county unless they mark every item on the ballot (not true) will hold onto absentee ballots longer and suffer through more phone calls from frustrated ballot chasers from partied and campaigns.
This could even have a ripple effect into races that are higher on the ballot. Iowa is rapidly becoming a heavy early voting state, with a quarter of the statewide vote cast early in general elections, and almost 50% in some urban counties. If voters delay marking their ballots because of confusion over an obscure Constitutional measure, that could increase the importance of late campaign developments and attacks. The parties could be well served by working together to publicize the measure, which in and of itself is a consensus item. But odds are, they’ll have other priorities.