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Ken Hare In Depth: Amendments crowd Nov. 6 ballot

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

The recent referendum on state government funding made voting easy for those few Alabamians who went to the polls. Since turnout was light and only one issue was on the ballot, there were almost no lines. Voters showed their ID, got their ballots, checked yes or no, and went on their way -- in and out in many instances in less than 10 minutes.

That won't be the case in the coming Nov. 6 general election.

General elections in Alabama during presidential election years often produce large voter turnouts, and that could be the case this year. With a ballot crowded by 11 statewide constitutional amendment proposals and with several counties having local amendments as well, long lines could be common.

Since 1988 in general elections in which the presidential race was at the head of the ballot, the average voter turnout in Alabama has been 67.7 percent. Since 1988 in general elections in which the race for governor led the ballot, the average turnout was only 54.5 percent.

In 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama stirred passions among Alabama voters both pro and con, 73.8 percent of registered voters in the state turned out and counties registered around 300,000 people leading up to the election.

"Both numbers are high but the turnout percentage was not a record itself," said Emily Thompson, deputy secretary of state. "But it was the highest number of voters that we have seen, with over 2 million voting in that election."

While the presidential election will draw most of the attention, there are a dozen statewide offices on the ballot as well. But interestingly, only two of them are contested.

Out of 11 offices for state appellate courts on the ballot, Alabama Democrats fielded just one candidate -- Bob Vance, who is facing Republican Roy Moore in the race for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. In the remaining four state Supreme Court seats up for grabs this year, the Republican candidates are unopposed. That is true as well for the three seats on the state Civil Appeals Court and the three seats on the state Criminal Appeals Court.

The only other statewide office on the ballot is contested, however, with incumbent Democrat Lucy Baxley facing a challenge by Republican Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh for the presidency of the Alabama Public Service Commission. Cavanaugh is a current commissioner who is seeking to move up to the top post on the commission.

Incumbent Baxley is the last surviving Democrat holding statewide office in Alabama, and she faces several obstacles to retaining that distinction. Not only have Republicans dominated statewide voting in recent elections, but Democrat Obama lost in Alabama four years ago to GOP challenger John McCain by a whopping 36 percent to 64 percent spread. So it is likely that Republican Mitt Romney will win big in Alabama this year, and any coattail effect he provides will make it that much tougher for a Democrat such as Baxley in a statewide race.

In addition to statewide races, there will be congressional and state board of education district races on the ballot in many counties, as well as numerous local offices such as county commission, school board and probate judge.

But what may chew up time in the voting booth are the plethora of referendums.

In addition to the 11 statewide amendments, many voters will decide local amendments to be voted on in only one county. For instance, voters in Montgomery County can choose whether to decrease the terms of office for Montgomery County school board members from six to four years.

There are two especially high profile statewide amendments to be decided on Nov. 6. One would extend the highly regarded Forever Wild program for another 20 years. The other would change the way Alabama legislators are paid.

Since its creation in 1992 by a constitutional amendment, the Forever Wild Land Trust has purchased more than 227,000 acres of land for public use. But even with those additional lands, Alabama still has the smallest percentage of public conservation land in the Southeast. Despite the success of the popular program, it will expire unless extended by the voters.

The pay raise referendum is much more controversial. Several years ago the Alabama Legislature voted itself a 61 percent pay increase, plus an annual automatic cost of living increase that legislators do not have to vote on to get each year. The increase incensed many voters, who reacted by voting against many legislators who supported the increase in the legislative elections two years ago.

To try to quell some of that voter resentment, legislators are proposing in this referendum to roll back legislative pay from current levels to the median household income in Alabama (currently about $42,000). That would not return pay to the level prior to that 61 percent increase, but it would reduce it somewhat. In the future, however, legislative pay would increase in years that household income increased. Legislators also could get expense reimbursements but would have to file an itemized form to do so.

(I will address both the Forever Wild and pay raise issues in more detail in future columns.)

Some advice to voters: Don't wait until you go to the polls to decide how to vote, especially on those amendments. The brief language describing the amendments that you will see on the ballots will not be enough to let you fully understand what you are voting on.

You should first look at the sample ballots for your county. Sample ballots for every county are available at: http://www.sos.alabama.gov/Elections/2012/2012SampleBallots.aspx

And those who want to read the full language of each of the amendments to be voted on can do so on the Alabama Secretary of State's web page at:

http://arc-sos.state.al.us/cgi/elactnum.mbr/output

(A suggestion: Look at the sample ballot to find the act number associated with the amendment, then click on that amendment on the Secretary of State's web site to read the full act.)

By doing your homework ahead of time, you can help speed the process on election day. But even more importantly, you can ensure that you know what your vote means.

After all, doing your civic duty should not be just about casting your ballot. It really should be about casting an informed ballot.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site.

Copyright 2012  WSFA 12 News.  All rights reserved.

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