Proposal reading 101: How to know what you're voting for

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DETROIT - If you live in the City of Rochester Hills, count yourself lucky.

On Tuesday's ballot, you will only have six state proposals to figure out and one ballot question. In Ann Arbor, in Washtenaw County, there are six state proposals and two charter amendments.  But in Detroit, you have six state proposals, six county proposals and six city proposals. 

As if you weren't already completely befuddled and confused by the glut of misleading and contradictory commercials day in and day out, now you have to figure out what you're reading.  Many voters choose to just walk away, or check a box and not really think about understanding what they're voting on.

Janice Winfrey, the Detroit City Clerk, says on drop off -- looking at the numbers from 2008 -- 335,000 people voted for the president.  But then when you drop down to the proposals, only 306,00 bothered to vote. That's about a 10 percent drop off. The key is to know what yes means, and what no means…and that's not always easy.  Proposals are filled with legalese, confusing language and nuance that can change the meaning of what you want to ultimately vote on.

Reasonable people should be able to parse these proposal statements, dissect them and understand them.  But that's just not the case.

Carmel Kinney, a Detroit hair stylist, was confused about the language of some of the proposals on her ballot.  She went looking for answers to make sure she was voting her heart and her circumstances and not being turned around or confused by what she thought she was reading.  She's not alone. Thousands of voters chose to ignore very important decisions that will affect their daily lives because it's just too cumbersome to figure out what the heck those proposals are getting at. With the help of Vince Keenan, the executive director of, a non-profit, non- partisan voter education organization, I've dissected the anatomy of a proposal to help you understand what you're reading and what you're voting on. 

On Publius, voters can see their polling place and ballot, which mean they can digest it in advance.  The website gives great explanations and it even carries videos from candidates so you can see them and hear them speaking directly to you.

Mark Armatage, a Detroit based attorney and Deputy Director at the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board tells me,  "I firmly believe that the only real way to figure out what the proposals are going to do is by reading these summaries (on Publius.Org) ahead of time."  He goes on to say, "there is just too much behind the scenes  that is not revealed by the simplified language of the ballot proposal.  Really, reading the language is like an introduction.  You almost have to read an analysis to figure out the actual impact of the proposal."

Mark also suggests using the League of Women Voters of Michigan website. as a reference. Click here to go to their website.

Now, let's get to it.  We're learning to fish for ourselves. 


A. Who is seeking the change?

B. Why are they seeking the change?

C. Is the change a good idea? 

Take a few extra moments, do a little research on the internet and find some articles about the topic, not the proposal necessarily, but the topic so you can see some of the history that prompted the call for change. 

QUICK USE GUIDE:  First thing you should do is read the entire proposal.  Then identify the "Shall" statement. Not every proposal will have the word "Shall"  but the question is often implied.  For statewide constitutional amendments for example, "Shall we amend the state constitution" is the question.  Once you've done that, you'll know what it is that proponents want to change.  Then identify the explanation. This is the portion written in natural language not the legalese and gobbledygook.  Then look for verbs. Verbs are action words and they will give you the clues on what action is to be taken (amend, remove, add etc).  Then identify the language that explains what change will actually take place.

GREAT EXAMPLE:  Here's another way to break it down. Let's take the City of Detroit's, Proposal C which seeks to broaden the powers of the City of Detroit's Corporation Counsel. 

City Proposal C,  has a horrendous back story.   Spring and summer of this year, you may remember a huge hub bub with the City of Detroit's Corporation Counsel in which there was a conflict with the Mayor's office.  The  Corporation Counsel, a woman by the name of Krystal Crittendon wouldn't sign a second set of State issued bonds because she felt the consent agreement wasn't proper because the State of Michigan still owed the City of Detroit 6-million dollars.  It was a nasty fight  between Mayor Dave Bing who wanted those bonds as part of a descent decree and Corporation Counsel, Krystal Crittendon who was asked to step down.  She refused. Basically the boss and the employee had a huge problem.  Now voters are now being asked by Corporation Counsel to give them more power so they can act independently of the mayor.

Here's how Proposal C on the Detroit ballot reads:

ANATOMY OF A PROPOSAL: A proposal is made up of four basic parts. 

  1. The "shall" statement. 
  2. The explanation/history statement. 
  3. The action to be taken or ask.
  4. The change that will take place.

Here's another example.  Let's take the State Proposal 3.  Notice how the proposals have the same anatomy but use different words and language.

Here's how the proposal reads on your actual ballot:

Here's how you can dissect it.


These are words you'll frequently see on proposals.  They mean one thing when you're talking to your friends and something else when you're voting on a proposal. 

AMEND: To change. 

AUTHORIZE: Approve. 

CHARTER: The original document and principals in which your  government,  county municipality or jurisdiction was founded.  It's similar to a constitution. 

GRANT: To allow. 

INVALIDATE:  To render something useless or take away power. 

MILL OR MILLAGE: The amount per $1,000 that is used to calculate taxes on property. Millage rates are most often found in personal property taxes.
Read more:

CALCULATING YOUR MILLAGE: Find the assessed value of your property.  Let's say, your taxable value is $70,000 or "70 thousands." For our example, let's say that the county wants to adopt  a millage rate of 14.000.  Multiply your taxable value in thousands (70) by the millage rate. 70 times 14.0 equals 980; in other words, your county property tax  would equal $980 for that mill. 

OVERRIDE:  To give authorization to ignore. It's similar to going over someone's head to get something done.  It means you cancel out what's there and render it powerless. 

REFERENDUM: Proposal to remove an existing law. 

REQUIRE:  Mandatory. 

RESTORE:  To bring back. 

VOTE: Do it.  If you don't understand something, find out about it, don't ignore it.  It's what makes this country the best country to live in because we all have a voice and that voice is our vote.

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