Eroding Rights Through Confusion

Potter, New York isn’t a very large town. 1,800 residents in a small farming community, who want the freedom to head out to the store and buy a six-pack of beer. In fact, they overwhelmingly want that freedom, but due to confusing state ABC laws and confusing ballot questions, they voted that freedom away:

Before the mix-up, people here could buy beer in two places, the Federal Hollow and the Hitchin’ Rail, a combination convenience store, ice cream stand and restaurant.

Owners of the Hitchin’ Rail, a fixture here for decades, wanted to add wine and beer to the menu at the restaurant, where hearty meat loaf and pot roast entrees top out at $8.95.

It was not as simple as it seemed. state alcoholic beverage control laws require that whenever a town wants to expand the way it sells alcohol, it must ask voters five questions — “stupid questions,” according to the town supervisor, Leonard Lisenbee, a retired federal game warden who has been in office six years and who characterized the state-mandated wording as post-Prohibition-era legalese.

The questions, requiring more than 300 words, ask whether alcohol should be allowed in a variety of settings, including a hotel and, separately, a “summer hotel.” “Shall any person be authorized to sell alcoholic beverages at retail to be consumed on premises licensed pursuant to the provisions of Section 64 of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Law?” was the relevant one to the Hitchin’ Rail. But there was also “Shall any person be authorized to sell alcoholic beverages at retail, not to be consumed on the premises, where sold in the town of Potter?” which relates to stores like the Federal Hollow.

“I read it and I couldn’t understand it, and I’ve got a college education,” Mr. Lisenbee said. “When voters get confused, they vote no.”

And they did.

The voters said no to all five questions, not only keeping the Hitchin’ Rail’s restaurant from serving beer and wine, but also blocking both stores from selling it, upon the expiration of their current licenses. Which means that on July 1, when the Federal’s license expires, the closest six-pack available for purchase will be in a town 10 miles away.

Voters can’t figure out how to answer a question posed on a ballot. Yet we’re constantly told we live in a democracy, not a Constitutionally-limited representative republic. If we can’t trust the voters of Potter, NY to accurately answer a question related to whether or not they can do something simple like buy beer & wine, how can we expect them to elect leaders who can represent their interests?

Admittedly, the questions are confusing. They’re even confusing to me. I’m an engineer and blogger, but reading more than a paragraph of legalese makes my head spin. I’m not sure I could answer these questions correctly, although being beer-related, I at least would have done my research first!

I’d blame the anti-alcohol forces for this. Or I’d blame big-government types who are trying to be our nannies. But in all reality, this isn’t the fault of any person or group in particular. This is government. This is the system. It’s an incomprehensible mess of arcane rules (5 questions?! Are you smarter than a 5th grader?! WTF?!) and confusing legal jargon, and it’s clear that the laws are being written to be understood by lawyers, not voters. Not to mention that those voters, educated in public schools, aren’t ever taught the tools to understand those laws anyway.

This is government, folks. When they’re trying to screw you, they’ll screw you. When they’re trying to help you, they’ll confuse you so badly that you screw yourself. Either way, you’re screwed.