Misleading ballot questions hurt voter interests, confuse at polls

Voters fill out their ballot at a polling station. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

When you vote today, there will be a question on your ballot about the retirement age of state judges. In full, it reads:
“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices of the Supreme Court, judges and magisterial district judges be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years?”

A tad wordy, perhaps, but a relatively straightforward question, right? Not exactly.

The question seems clear until you find out that there is already an established retirement age of 70 for Pennsylvania state judges. The amendment would raise that existing age, not create one from scratch. That information is important because a Franklin and Marshall College poll in September found that 64 percent of those polled would vote “yes” on the amendment’s current wording while only 45 percent would vote “yes” when told about the existing retirement age.

It’s troubling that simply the wording of a ballot question can influence how the public votes, which in turn influences the law. This isn’t a problem limited to Pennsylvania — people in all states should be able to understand what their votes actually support.

According to Craig Burnett, a professor of political science at Hofstra University, state ballot questions appear because of constitutional requirements or organized support from interest groups. But across the country, there are problems with the way ballot questions are worded, largely because of complex language and the omission of relevant information that completely obscures what the question really means.

The United Kingdom’s ballot for the Brexit vote is an example of a good ballot question, at least in terms of clarity. The ballot reads “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Nothing more. The question doesn’t obscure anything and uses simple, honest, direct language.

A University of Utah study looked at more than 1,200 ballot questions from 1997 to 2007 and found that the average question was written at a seventeenth-grade reading level. In other words, you’d need to be in the middle of a master’s degree program to be able to understand what you’re voting on. This is only worsened by information from the Literacy Project Foundation, which reports that 50 percent of Americans cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level.

The complex wording hurdle has serious implications for the fate of these ballot measures because voters can make errors or simply abstain from making a decision. Defenders of the language would respond by saying that voters should do their research before the election, but even doing extra homework on ballot initiatives can lead voters astray when amendments come paired with heavily funded ad campaigns meant to persuade and potentially deceive.
The most egregious example of this scenario is an amendment on Florida’s ballot this election.

The full amendment, called Amendment 1, reads:

“This amendment establishes a right under Florida’s constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use. State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.”

Basically, the initiative is concerned with regulating solar power in Florida. Supporters advertised the amendment as “an easy choice” that “protects consumer’s” ability to generate their own solar power. But funding for these ad campaigns has come primarily from companies like Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy. These are energy groups that use fossil fuels and thus have a vested interest in inhibiting solar power, not promoting it.

The deceptive wording suggests that those companies will be hurt by a “yes” vote, but the opposite is true. The first sentence of the amendment “establishes a right under Florida’s constitution” for consumers to install solar energy on their property, but Floridians already have that right. The second half of the amendment, according to columnist and author Carl Hiaasen, “opens the way for municipalities and the state to hit local solar providers with fees and regulations that could prevent them from selling low-cost electricity to customers.”

So energy groups who want to remain afloat have taken advantage of the amendment’s trickery. As per usual, money tends to muddy the already murky waters of political decision-making.

The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to consider removing Amendment 1 from the ballot after opponents filed a case for precisely the reasons mentioned above. But it remains on the ballot.

As long as state legislatures write ballot questions, the questions will continue to be subject to partisan bias. Even establishing a nonpartisan committee to write ballot questions would run into the problem of having to work with the state legislatures, which opens the committee up to subconscious bias and possible corruption.

The simplest problem to solve is the complexity of the wording. Far too often, as in Florida and Pennsylvania, ballot questions appear in complex legalese. The first thing that needs to happen is for ballot questions to carry simple, direct language that makes clear what is up for voting.

Of course, politics is, and always will be, political. It should at least be understandable.

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