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Why ballot questions can be so confusing

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Posted at 10:08 AM, Sep 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-02 10:08:04-04

The concept of voting can be simple, but many ballots are not that easy to understand, especially ballot questions that are often wordy and complicated.

Ahead of the 2020 midterm election, Whitney Quesenbery, the executive director of the Center for Civic Design, is researching what trips voters up.

“Our motto is, 'Democracy is a design problem,'" she said.

Quesenbery said the recent abortion rights question in Kansas was likely confusing for many voters.

The question was 240 words and voting "Yes" would have meant supporting restricting the right to an abortion through a change to the state’s constitution.

“A vote for the Value Them Both Amendment would affirm there is no Kansas constitutional right to abortion or to require the government funding of abortion, and would reserve to the people of Kansas, through their elected state legislators, the right to pass laws to regulate abortion” the question read.

“It was ones that I find hardest because you have to repeal something to make something happen," Quesenbery said.

Confusing questions can be found on ballots across the nation.

In May, voters in Texas were asked a question about property taxes for the elderly. The 77-word question was one sentence.

"The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for the reduction of the amount of a limitation on the total amount of ad valorem taxes that may be imposed for general elementary and secondary public school purposes on the residence homestead of a person who is elderly or disabled to reflect any statutory reduction from the preceding tax year in the maximum compressed rate of the maintenance and operations taxes imposed for those purposes on the homestead," the question read.

Quesenbery says questions like the one in Texas can be confusing for a lot of people, especially those who don't read well or someone who doesn't understand the intricacies of government.

States have different rules for who writes ballot questions. Questions often go through state legislatures or citizen groups that received enough signatures to get the issue on a ballot.

"There is no law that says they have to be written in confusing language. It’s habit. It’s habit of the legal profession and how laws work. You think you’re being very grown up to use those big words,” Quesenbery said.

Quesenbery believes some questions are purposely confusing.

"I’m sure there are questions that are confusing on purpose, or they're either deliberately confusing on purpose or they’re written in a way that puts the framers in the best possible light," Quesenbery said.

Quesenbery's work is having an impact in Georgia ahead of the midterms.

The Center for Civic Design reworked a large chunk of copy into bullet points and fewer words.

"Now we’re at 147 words. This was 178 words," Quesenbery said. “It says exactly the same thing. We didn't change the law, we changed how it said it.”

For voters in other states, Quesenbery said voters should go in prepared.

“I would urge you to look at multiple sources so you don't just get one viewpoint, and find the one or find the combination of two, help you make the decision," She said. "But you can't do it in the ballot box, when you’re there and you have a couple of minutes, you start marking your ballot, that's not the time to parse things out. This is something you really need to make a plan for and if you think it’s too hard, tell your state legislator.”