The biggest complaint we hear in our research with voters is that ballot questions seem written to purposely confuse them. They’re not wrong. Weighing in at 75 words, the Florida amendment on solar energy that has so upset voters this year doesn’t look too bad. But it took us almost an hour to work out what the amendment actually says — and we are experts used to reading legal texts. What about voters like the 43 percent of American adults who read at basic or below basic levels? Ballot measures that are written in plain language are much more respectful of voters. But there are other issues at play: First, readers have to find the information in advance to inform their opinion on ballot measures. For many voters, the first time they see a ballot question is when they are faced with it in the voting booth.
As of 2012, fewer than 9 percent of jurisdictions sent information directly to voters about what will be on the ballot. So most voters still have to know that the ballot question exists in the first place to take the initiative to find resources and study them. For someone standing in a voting booth, even the best voter guide handed out at the polling station may not be enough. For one thing, that information is coming too late for voters who may need to really consider the question.
And then voters face the difficulty of understanding what the question really asks. Typically, when ballot questions are controversial, it’s not that the words are so difficult, but the meaning behind those words are obfuscated. A 50- to 150-word description of a ballot measure is enough to remind someone who has done homework ahead of time about what the issue is and how they want to vote on it. But it’s not enough to inform voters who did not know about the issue before they saw it on their ballot.