Voters will face several ballot questions on Nov. 3, including constitutional amendments and statewide and local referendums. Their wording can be confusing. The following is a guide to what they mean in plainer English.

For information about candidates in key local races, see our Voters Guide here.


Amendment 1: Dedicating fees and taxes to intended purpose

This amendment aims to halt the state’s frequent practice of taking fees or taxes that are imposed for specialty funds and instead spending them elsewhere. The example that drove this proposal was fees charged to purchasers of tires and to governments for solid-waste disposal. Those fees were intended to pay for cleanup of dumps and landfills, but frequently are diverted to other spending. A “yes” vote would require such money to go to its intended purpose in most cases and barring an emergency.

Amendment 2: Ability to sue government

This amendment would allow people to sue state or local governments over the legality of their laws. It is a reaction to a controversial 2017 Supreme Court of Georgia decision that “sovereign immunity” bars such lawsuits without the state’s consent; that case addressed a lawsuit filed by doctors against an abortion law. A “yes” vote would waive sovereign immunity in cases alleging a government official acted “outside the scope of lawful authority” or in violation of state laws or the Georgia or U.S. constitutions. A court could make a ruling, but damages or fees could only be charged in such a case with the General Assembly’s approval.


Tax exemption for real estate owned by charities

A “yes” on this question would create a property tax exemption for vacant lots owned by registered nonprofit organizations “whose mission is solely to build and finance affordable homes at 0% interest loans,” said Rep. Matthew Gambill (R-Cartersville), lead sponsor of the legislation that is putting this question to the voters. It is specifically intended to help Habitat for Humanity, which had many vacant lots donated to it in the last recession. “This will help further the mission of organizations like Habitat for Humanity and others by allowing them to direct the dollars saved from ad valorem tax to constructing affordable housing,” says Gambill. Once the housing is built and given to a homeowner, the property would go back on the tax rolls.


Board of Ethics reform

A “yes” vote on this question would reform the DeKalb County Board of Ethics, which has been inactive since the Supreme Court of Georgia in 2018 ruled that its current board member appointment method is unconstitutional. The question is confusing because it talks about revising the board without explaining how.

The current board was appointed by various officials and agencies, including such private groups as universities and the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce. The majority involvement of private organizations is what the Supreme Court ruled unlawful. If successful, the question on the ballot would dissolve the board as of Dec. 31 and appoint a new one, with three members chosen by the county delegation in the state House of Representatives, three by the county delegation in the state Senate, and one by the county tax commissioner. Two alternates would be appointed by the clerk of the county Superior Court.

The Board of Ethics is intended to independently review claims of improper conduct by public officials. This is the third reform to appear as a ballot question in five years amid concerns the board was not independent. In 2015, voters approved the current board that turned out to be unlawful. Last year, voters rejected another reform proposal amid concerns it again gave the county CEO and Board of Commissioners too much influence. The DeKalb Citizens Advocacy Council, a group that advocates for the Board of Ethics reform, opposed last year’s ballot question but is supporting the one on the Nov. 3 ballot.


Removal of mayoral term limit

Only voters in the city of Brookhaven will see this question, which would remove the current term limit for the mayor. Under the existing city charter, mayors are limited to two consecutive four-year terms. If that limit is removed, the change would apply to incumbent John Ernst, who this year began his second term in office and would be free to run again.

The city government drew controversy with an attempt last year to raise the term limit solely by state legislation. Some state legislators balked and required that the issue go before voters.

The actual language of the ballot question is as follows: “Shall the section of the Act be approved which repeals the provision that limits the terms of the mayor of the City of Brookhaven to allow the voters of Brookhaven to choose the mayor of their choice?”

The part about “the Act” is an unexplained reference to the larger piece of state legislation that authorized the ballot question. The part about allowing voters “to choose the mayor of their choice” may be confusing. Voters already choose the mayor and will be able to regardless of the question’s outcome. The question is how many times an incumbent can be among the candidates. The question does not affect other restrictions on who is eligible to run for mayor, including residency and voter registration requirements.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.