New York Governor Signs Legislation Setting Language Standards for Constitutional Amendments

WASHINGTON, D.C. — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signed legislation last week that sets minimum language standards for proposed constitutional amendments.

The law requires that proposed amendments and ballot measures be explained in plain language that identifies the practical outcome of each proposal. Under the new law, ballot language cannot contain any double negatives or semicolons and must be written at or below the eighth grade reading level and in a yes or no format, among other requirements.

To ensure compliance with the law, the law requires the New York State Board of Elections to calculate an “Automated Readability Index Score” for each proposal.

When signing the legislation, Hochul noted that she signed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York into law last year and stated that the new law enacted last week “will ensure New Yorkers are informed and protected when they cast their vote on proposed constitutional amendments.”

While the requirements may seem rudimentary, ballot language can often be an issue of intense controversy, and New York has used constitutional amendments to reform, or attempt to reform, its voting and election processes notch significant change for voting rights.

In 2014, the state used this process to create the Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC). The IRC is currently subject to a lawsuit that argues the commission failed to do its constitutional duty when it deadlocked in 2022, which resulted in the Legislature, not the IRC, drawing the state’s congressional map. In 2021 voters also tried to use the method to expand mail-in voting and implement same-day voter registration, but the measures failed to garner 50% of the vote as required.

Changes to misleading and confusing ballot language aren’t only needed in New York. A constitutional amendment in Ohio to enshrine reproductive freedom into the state constitution (which passed earlier this month) was subject to a lawsuit after Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) rewrote the ballot language in a way reproductive groups and Democrats argued was misleading and incomplete. The Ohio Supreme Court largely upheld the language.

The state also endured a back and forth over a proposed amendment to create an independent redistricting commission, with Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) rejecting the language twice and the group having to rescind a third submission over a small typo. The fourth version of ballot language was ultimately accepted.

Read the bill here.

Read more about ballot measures here.