State questions not easily understood
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, November 11, 2012
11/11/12 at 4:50 AM
Years ago, a Tulsa World movie reviewer began his gigging of the 1977 horror film, "Orca: the Killer Whale," by observing that such creatures were considered the most intelligent animals on Earth, much smarter than humans.
"I believe that this is true," the reviewer observed, "because not a single orca whale was in the movie audience last night."
On Tuesday, voters across the nation faced 174 ballot questions, ranging from implementation of the Affordable Care Act to legalization of recreational marijuana to same-sex marriage.
In Oklahoma, voters approved six questions on a lengthy ballot.
State questions here must be worded at about that same degree of difficulty - eighth grade - as the average reading level for an adult American. I personally don't believe that questions are quite that understandable, based on conversations I've heard at the polls and in the run-up to elections. But a study, conducted three years ago, indicates I'm wrong.
That study looked at 1,211 ballot measures over 10 years in 46 states. To analyze the questions, the two Georgia State University authors, Shauna Reilly and Sean Richey, used the Flesch-Kincaid scale, a measure of the reading level needed to understand text.
Oklahoma questions ended up scoring on a ninth-grade level, the easiest in the nation. This means that they were written at about the same level of difficulty as the King James Version of the Bible (eighth-grade) but are more difficult to read (big surprise) than bodice-ripper romance novels (fifth-grade) and the works of several popular novelists such as John Grisham, Stephen King and Tom Clancy (seventh grade).
All 46 states studied exceeded the average eighth-grade reading level in difficulty of state question wording and more than 60 percent of questions required a graduate-school reading level or higher. New Mexico, Colorado, South Carolina and Minnesota required a reading level even higher than a doctorate to understand the state questions (26th and 27th-grade level). In other words, only rocket scientists, columnist George Will and the aforementioned orca whales could fully understand them.
Doug Chapin, of the University of Minnesota, wrote an article about the study entitled, "Everything I Need to Know About Ballots I learned in Grad School." He pointed out that "achieving readability is harder than it looks; state statutes and legislative language often create barriers by imposing impenetrable language, which election officials and ballot drafters are powerless to change."
Passage or punting?
Ballot difficulty was evident in such places as Florida Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning. Because of long lines and lengthy ballots, voters in many areas didn't end up completing their ballots until around the same time that Mitt Romney was conceding the election and President Barack Obama was giving his acceptance speech.
Oklahoma voters didn't end up going into the night but lines throughout the day were long in many areas. Yes, all six state questions passed, but I seriously doubt that many of those who voted for, say, State Question 759, banning affirmative action in state employment, education and contracting, actually understand that passage of the question will do little more than make the state look bad.
And many won't realize that State Question 758, reducing the cap on annual property evaluations, probably won't accomplish what some voters thought that it would, and could, in fact, end up raising taxes in some instances.
Probably the best thing that could be said about the passage of SQ 758 and SQ 759, is that voting yes on them apparently put voters in the mood to vote yes for SQ 762, which removes the governor from the parole process. This is a state question that will save taxpayers millions of dollars. Parole requests are less likely to become backlogged as was the case when eligible nonviolent offenders waited for the governor to sign off on every single request.
Before Tuesday's vote Oklahoma was the only state in the nation that still required its governor to sign off on all paroles. Gov. Mary Fallin came out against the measure just weeks before the election but that apparently had little impact on the vote. Passage of the measure was an important piece of the Justice Reinvestment initiative passed earlier this year by the Legislature.
The complexity of ballot measures is always a gripe among voters who find making choices among flesh-and-blood candidates hard enough. State questions are far less understandable; they're written to pass legal muster and can involve changes to the state Constitution. They're often on the ballot to get something into law that the Legislature couldn't man up and do itself - many of the really tough issues.
Unlike candidate selection where party affiliation serves as a guide for voters, ballot measures require voters to grasp and then make a decision on complicated issues. Confused voters, observed one National Conference of State Legislatures analyst, "may end up casting a ballot for the policy they don't want - or opting out of voting at all."
The lesson for the election community on ballot measures is that they shouldn't be afraid, as Chapin advised, "to take a red pen to ballot language before voters take a pen to their ballots." And they sure shouldn't write ballot questions that only can be understood easily by rocket scientists and orca whales.
Original Print Headline: Question No. 1: What did I vote for?
Julie DelCour, 918-581-8379
Early morning voters fill out their ballots at St. Lukes United Methodist Church on Tuesday in Oklahoma City. Oklahomans voted on six state questions. NICK OXFORD / Associated Press