(Editor's note: This article has been changed from its original form to correct errors about the Fair Ballot Commission's role.)
MONTGOMERY — Alabama's new Fair Ballot Commission has one week to render five state constitutional amendments — thousands of words of legalese — into unbiased language most Alabama voters can understand.
"Time is not our friend," Montgomery lawyer William Sellers, the commission's chairman, said Wednesday at the group’s first meeting.
Voters will cast ballots on five amendments to the Alabama constitution, governing topics from bond issues to gun rights, when they head to the polls Nov. 4. That's a fairly typical count: the constitution has been amended nearly 900 times since it was adopted 113 years ago.
Lawmakers decide how each amendment is explained on the ballot. Voters have long complained that the descriptions are murky at best, and occasionally downright deceptive.
"It takes at least a master's degree to read some of our amendments," said Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Bay Minette, citing a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures. "There just aren't that many people in Alabama with master's degrees."
McMillan was one of the sponsors of a bill, passed earlier this year, that created the Fair Ballot Commission. The commission, composed of state officials, lawyers and legislators, is tasked with writing a "ballot statement" -- a clear, fair and concise description -- for each of the amendments on the ballot. Those statements will be posted on the Legislature's website, and at the offices of probate judges, commission members say.
The commission held its first meeting Wednesday. By state law, the ballot statements have to be ready 60 days before the election. State officials say that gives the commission until next week to agree on descriptions of all five amendments.
That may not be easy. At Wednesday's meeting, commission members seemed to have more questions than answers about some ballot amendments.
Proposed Amendment 1, passed by the Legislature back in 2013, would ban Alabama from recognizing legal precedents set in foreign countries. But there's also a clause in the amendment that says Alabama isn't required to give "full faith and credit" to legal proceedings in other U.S. states if they clash with Alabama policy.
Commission members said that clause may have been intended to prevent the state from recognizing same-sex marriage. But more than a year after the amendment passed the Legislature, no one on the commission seemed to be sure of its intent.
"This is something we'll need to study," said commission member John Carroll, a former federal magistrate judge and professor at Cumberland School of Law.
Commission members were just as cautious about describing other amendments which seem to double down — or triple down — on rights already established in the constitution.
Amendment 5 on the November ballot would give Alabamians a constitutional right to fish and hunt. The constitution already has a right-to-hunt amendment, passed in 1996. Proposed amendment 3 would give Alabamians a "fundamental" right to bear arms — even though Section 26 of the Alabama constitution states that "every citizen" has that right already.
Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, said the gun-rights amendment is an example of just how tough it will be to write fair, simple ballot wording. Taylor said this year's amendment, if passed, would require "strict scrutiny" of any effort to restrict gun rights.
The "strict scrutiny" standard was designed to make it harder to ban guns, Taylor said.
"If you don't know the meaning, it could sound like you're limiting the right to bear arms," he said.
While voters will be able to see the Fair Ballot Commission's descriptions before the vote, the lawmakers still decide how each amendment is described on the ballot itself. Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, said that when the Fair Ballot Commission bill was introduced earlier this year, the plan was to have the commission write the wording on the ballot. Pittman said removing the Legislature from the ballot-writing process proved too complicated to do during the last legislative session.
"Logistically, we just couldn't get that done," Pittman said.
The Legislature's ballot descriptions have proven troublesome in the past. In 2011, lawmakers asked voters to pass an amendment to take $437 million from a state trust fund to shore up the state budget. The ballot wording warned of a "mass release of prisoners" if the measure didn't pass, but prison officials said a mass release just wasn't possible.
Even when the wording is more mundane, it's often difficult to interpret. Several committee members said they didn't really understand the state's most recent amendment, a measure that allowed cotton growers to hold a referendum on refunds from a fee they're charged by the Alabama Cotton Commission.
McMillan, the lawmaker, said he wasn't sure why the commission held its first meeting with only a week left to write the ballot statements.
"We didn't realize we'd be coming this close to the deadline," he said. "Looking back, we should have pursued it right at the end of the (legislative) session."
The Fair Ballot Commission will meet again Sept. 2 at the Alabama State Capitol.