Must a question on the ballot always be in the form of a question? According to the Appellate Division of Superior Court, the answer is no.
On July 25, in Ortiz v. North Bergen Board of Education, the board approved a referendum to be put before the voters in a special election. The referendum sought approval of a capital improvement plan to alleviate classroom overcrowding and modernize school facilities. Long-term bonds totaling approximately $60 million would fund the project along with approximately $4 million from the board’s capital reserve account.
The referendum was approved, but a citizen sought to have the results invalidated because the board’s referendum was not in the form of a question and did not conform to applicable law and regulations. The trial court disagreed with the citizen and upheld the referendum, despite it not being in the form of a question.
The citizen appealed, arguing that the referendum did not follow the law because it was worded in a confusing manner and was not in the form of a question. The Appellate Division rejected these arguments. The appeals court reasoned that N.J.S.A. 19:3-6 provides that “[a]ny public question voted upon at an election shall be presented in simple language that can be easily understood by the voter. The printed phrasing of said question on the ballots shall clearly set forth the true purpose of the matter being voted upon.”
The court examined the plain language of N.J.S.A. 19:1-1 which requires that any “question, proposition or referendum required by the legislative or governing body” … “be submitted by referendum procedure to the voters of the State or political subdivision for decision at elections.”
The court examined the North Bergen referendum which was labelled a “proposal” and determined that it met the requirements of law. Further, the court observed that the proposal was broken down into four separate parts that explained what was to be voted on in the referendum.
The court concluded that the referendum could be easily understood by the voter and met the requirements of statute and regulation. The court held that “(w)hile it may have been preferable to present the referendum in the form of a question, we agree with …the Board, that there is no statutory requirement that the referendum must be presented in that manner.” Thus, the Appellate Division of Superior Court upheld the referendum.
For questions about this case, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254 or your board attorney.