WINONA, Miss. — Jackson resident Alex Jones considers himself to be an informed citizen. The businessman reads at least one newspaper most days, follows state and national politics, and enjoys history.
But when he first examined a sample ballot for Initiative 42, which calls for a constitutional amendment to require the state to fund an “adequate and efficient” system of public school districts, he was stumped.
After looking at the one-page sample ballot for more than a minute on a recent weekday, Jones thought he knew how to cast his vote for the initiative.
“OK,” the 59-year-old said, smiling as he took a break from his salad at the Huddle House in Winona, located about 90 miles from Jackson. “I’ve got it! I would mark this top part. And then, I would leave the bottom part blank because the top part would cover it, right? That’s got to be it.”
Jones got it wrong. That means that if the Cleveland native had been casting his actual ballot, it would have been nullified because one of the two required parts was left blank. He isn’t alone in his confusion about an amendment supporters hope will bring long-awaited help for the state’s struggling and underfunded schools.
Of about 45 Mississippi residents asked to review the ballot by The Hechinger Report, just four were able to complete the sample ballot in a way that accurately reflected their intent. From the Huddle House in Winona to an outlet mall in Pearl; from the Mississippi State Fair in Jackson to a feed store on the outskirts of Greenwood; from outside a gas station in Edwards to a community college campus in Holmes County, Mississippians of varied education levels, ages and backgrounds were puzzled by the ballot’s legal language. They were equally confused by the two different sections that must be marked for the ballot to be counted.
Brian Anderson, a political science professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, said he isn’t surprised to hear about the statewide confusion.
“It certainly could have been easier,” Anderson said. “I think people could be so confused, that later they find out that what they wanted to happen when they voted isn’t what they actually voted for. There are probably going to be people who thought they were voting to support 42 who ended up nullifying their vote …. We could have some very angry voters on our hands.”
The confusion is created in part because of the ballot initiative’s two parts, which became necessary after the Mississippi legislature, at the urging of Republican leadership, voted last spring to add Initiative 42A to the ballot. The alternative initiative would basically nullify 42 and would keep Mississippi’s school funding system as it is. In another twist, the Mississippi Republican Party is now asking voters to vote against both measures, leaving the party in the unusual position of being against an initiative it put on the ballot in the first place.
Republican leaders have argued that the intent of the alternative measure wasn’t to create confusion. But at the first in a series of public hearings on Initiative 42, held in August, Rep. Greg Snowden, the primary author of 42A, acknowledged the alternative initiative was created as a roadblock to 42.
“Is 42A intended to make it more difficult to pass initiative 42? Of course it is,” said Snowden, a Republican from Meridian, during the August forum.
Snowden said Tuesday he regrets that the ballot is confusing, but said the alternative initiative is needed to call attention to the change 42 would require in the state constitution by giving power to the judicial system if the legislature doesn’t comply with the requirements it outlines.
“If we didn’t have the alternative, what you would have is this mom, pop and apple pie kind of vote, where people were asked if they cared about children and wanted them to have an education,” Snowden said. “We wanted to really shine a light on the fact that this does more than that. This is about a fundamental change to how our government works and who has authority. Having the alternative helped frame the debate — made it possible for us to have those conversations.”
Stakes are high in the political slugfest. Using the formula Initiative 42 calls for, more than $200 million more would need to go to public education during the 2016 fiscal year, although proponents of the initiative note that full funding is not required until 2022, allowing the legislature to phase it in over time. Using that same formula, Mississippi schools have been shorted $1.7 billion since 2008. That’s money superintendents have said they need to repair crumbling buildings, buy buses, provide up-to-date textbooks, upgrade computers and give extra attention to kids who are behind.
The funding challenges are compounded because Mississippi public schools educate some of the nation’s neediest students, who research consistently shows are most likely to come to school behind and then need extra help. Only about half of low-income 3- and 4-year-olds in the state are enrolled in preschool and some 35 percent of children live in poverty — the highest percentage in the nation. Some 71 percent of state teachers surveyed recently had at least one student repeating kindergarten; 41 percent said their students weren’t able to identify colors and shapes or hold a crayon, according to Mississippi Kids Count, which collects state data and statistics.
If Initiative 42 passes, school funding would be determined using the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) formula, established into state law in 1997 as part of an effort to better fund public education and provide relief to districts in areas with weak local tax bases. The formula was written into law as a promise to public schools, but its funding requirements have been met just twice in 18 years. The constitutional amendment would give teeth to the 1997 law: if its requirements weren’t met, funding would be enforced by a chancery judge in Hinds County, site of Mississippi’s state government. That decision could then be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Advocates of Initiative 42 say it is needed because the legislature has not kept the promise schools were given with the passage of MAEP. They say public schools are underfunded, and it’s impossible to expect Mississippi schools and students to get out of last place nationally if they aren’t given adequate resources.
Republican leaders, including Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, have come out against Initiative 42. Trade organizations, including the Mississippi Farm Bureau, the Mississippi Manufacturing Association and the Mississippi Association of Realtors are among those who have joined Republicans in expressing opposition to 42. Critics say the initiative would put too much power in the hands of a judge.
In Jackson, volunteers from the local PTA are out six days a week, knocking on doors and asking people to support 42. Rosaline McCoy, president of the Jackson Council of the PTA, said educating voters about how to mark their ballots is an essential part of the work of pro-42 volunteers.
“The first thing we do is tell people about 42 — about what it means for the state, and for the city of Jackson,” she said. “But after that, the next step is just as important — and that’s walking people through a sample ballot and making sure they understand how it works. We know that piece is essential. People don’t necessarily know how to express their vote without being shown because it’s so confusing.”
Nonpartisan voter education efforts have also taken place at civic club meetings, church gatherings, parent meetings and at fraternity and sorority alumni meetings across the state. Several of the state’s newspapers, as well as political organizations on both sides of the initiative, have circulated sample ballots showing how to vote either for or against the measure.
Virginia Brand of Toomsuba, located just outside of Meridian in east central Mississippi, said she is personally against the initiative. But, as a poll worker, she wants to ensure voters express their intent correctly in the ballot box.
“I really thought at first it was a simple yes or no,” the 71-year-old said, adding she is concerned that schools aren’t using the money they already get effectively. “I can tell I am going to have to go down to the courthouse and really make sure that I understand it before the election. People are going to need help.”
Former attorney Lee Jones examined the ballot for several minutes before correctly identifying how to cast his vote in support of the initiative. Jones said his law degree — and his public school teacher wife’s insistence that he support the initiative — probably helped him get it right.
“Why’d they put all this crap on here?” he asked, laughing and shaking his head as he sat in a chair at his feed and western-wear store on the outskirts of Greenwood in the Mississippi Delta. “It doesn’t have to be this hard. They should just be asking who is for it and who is against it.”
Eighteen-year-old Lizzy McLemore, a student at Holmes Community College in Goodman, was quick to say she supports 42. But she and her friend, Lashaundia Hardy, also 18, puzzled over the ballot for several minutes trying to decide how to vote.
“I think maybe I should vote here where it says to support 42A?” McLemore asked her friend, as the two made their way across the campus. “I don’t know. I’m confused. What do you think?”
The teens, who graduated from Madison County public schools in the suburbs north of Jackson, said the ballot was a wake-up call that they need to do their own research.
“I can see now that you have to really research so you know what you are doing,” McLemore said. “I just didn’t know it was this hard to vote for what you think is right.”
Canton’s Tom Alexander, who runs a screen-printing and engraving shop, and also operates a coffeehouse-style gathering space called “Good Things Happen Over Coffee,” said the sample ballot was a wake-up call for him, too. He wants to vote for Initiative 42, but only marked one of the two spots on the ballot. His ballot wouldn’t count if marked that way in the election.
“I’ve been paying attention,” he said. “I’ve even talked to elected officials about this. But I didn’t know how to cast the ballot. I can tell that it’s really left up to us to decipher this stuff so that education can move forward. We need to stay informed.”
Johnnie Clark, a nuclear energy worker who lives in Vicksburg, and sends his two children to private school, said he would vote for Initiative 42 — in part because he hopes that with more funding the public schools in Vicksburg would improve and he could save money on private school tuition.
“I would like to see more money go to the public schools,” he said. “And that might surprise some people, because my kids don’t even go there.”
Clark, though, was another person who mismarked the sample ballot.
“It seems like the top and bottom say the same thing, right?” he asked, eyes widening. “I’d mark the top part but then leave the bottom part blank. It doesn’t seem as important to me. I already told them what I wanted to do in the first part.”
Doris Marble of Raymond, near the capital city of Jackson, said she needs to know more about the initiative before she can make an informed decision. But she said the sample ballot definitely didn’t do anything to help her glean information to make a decision.
“I’m just looking and thinking — what is all this stuff? What is it even saying? I’m just totally confused,” Marble said, as she sat in a rocking chair in front of the Pearl Cracker Barrel waiting on her 18-year-old granddaughter. “It’s bad when you feel like they just want you to be confused, you know?”