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A ballot title is the official, short, summary of a ballot measure that appears on the ballot. The goal of a good ballot title is to be a neutral summary that accurately conveys to voters the gist of what the proposed new law says or would do. The National Conference of State Legislatures says, "The ballot title and summary are arguably the most important part of an initiative in terms of voter education. Most voters never read more than the title and summary of the text of initiative proposals. Therefore, it is of critical importance that titles and summaries be concise, accurate and impartial."
However, it is not always clear how one would neutrally describe the gist of what a new law would do.
As a result, ballot titles are fertile grounds for conflict and lawsuits.
Differences between states
Another way that states differ has to do with whether the ballot title is determined by the government (which could be a commission, a ballot title determination board, the Secretary of State, or some other election official) or whether the ballot title is determined by the political organization that is advocating for the measure.
Pre-circulation ballot titles
States where the ballot title is set prior to circulation include:
Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon (In Oregon, the ballot title is set after 1,000 initial sponsorship signatures have been submitted) and Washington.
Post-circulation ballot titles
States where the ballot title is determined by the government after the signatures have been collected are:
Ballot titles determined by proponents
In Florida and South Dakota, the ballot title is determined by the proponent, subject to legal challenge by opponents in court.
Impact of ballot title on election outcome
There is a general consensus that the ballot title can be highly determinative of whether a ballot measure wins or loses.
- Jennie Bowser (2003-03-02). "''Preparation of a ballot title and summary''". Ncsl.org. Retrieved 2010-05-02.