Why are some ballot questions so confusing?

Experts say you should do your research before you go to the polls.
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Published: Feb. 23, 2021 at 4:47 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The issues that get voted on for Town Meeting Day vary from town to town and year to year, but one thing many of those ballots have in common is language voters say they find confusing.

Burlington’s Town Meeting Day ballot has seven questions for the community to vote on.

One question that has received much attention is question number five about just cause evictions.


“Shall the Charter of the City of Burlington, Acts of 1949, No. 298 as amended, be further amended to give the City Council the power to provide by ordinance protections for residential tenants from evictions without ‘just cause’ by adopting and adding a new section 48(66) that

-identifies certain definitions of just cause;

-excludes from ‘just cause’ the expiration of a rental agreement as sole grounds for termination of tenancy, except for certain properties, subject to mitigation provisions such as adequate notice;

-limits unreasonable rent increases to prevent de facto evictions of non-renewals?”



Queen City residents seemed to be informed.

“It seems to make sense to me,” said Lucas Sampere of Burlington.

“I’m voting for it, yup,” said another resident.

But folks outside of the city who are not aware of the issue say the wording is confusing.

“I wouldn’t know whether to vote yes or no without a little more information,” said Susan O’Kane of Hinesburg. “I would say that’s not super clear.”

“Yeah, it’s really hard to read. I don’t know what that says,” said Andrea Wheeland of Winooski.

This specific question focuses on just cause evictions and renting in Burlington.

“I think it’s time we have protections for people who do rent,” said Tom Proctor with Rights and Democracy, and the Just Cause Coalition.

“Our position is that it impacts property owners and their right to do what they want with their property,” said Peter Tucker, the director of advocacy for the Vermont Association of Realtors.

Both sides of the vote have told WCAX News they feel the wording of the issue is vague. So why is that?

“My office reviews the questions that are going on the ballot to ensure that they are legally sound,” said Eileen Blackwood, the city attorney for Burlington.

Blackwood says she doesn’t have the final say on the questions that make the ballot, she just makes sure the legalese passes muster for lawmakers and makes sense for the public.

“Whatever the voters vote, it’s going to come up with some direction for the City Council or the mayor or that goes to the state Legislature that it’s clear enough,” Blackwood said.

“Towns, I think, work very hard to try to make the questions that are on the ballot clear and easy. On the other hand, you do have to convey the intention in some legal language,” said Karen Horn of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

Horn says at the end of the day, be educated before you vote.

“If you take the time to be informed, I think the questions will make a lot more sense to you,” she said.

Copyright 2021 WCAX. All rights reserved.

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