Citizens' Initiative

Maine House passes bill to make wording of ballot questions ‘as simple as is possible’

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The Maine House on Tuesday voted to approve a bill that would simplify the wording of ballot questions to make them easier to understand for Maine voters. The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Andrews of Paris, evolved during negotiations in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee but would measurably improve Maine’s ballot initiative process if signed into law.

As originally written, LD 534 required all ballot questions to be written at a sixth-grade reading level and “unambiguously state what the effect of a “yes”or “no” vote may have.” As amended, the bill instead orders the Secretary of State to write ballot questions “as simply as is possible” but keeps the requirement to explain the meaning of a “yes” or “no” vote directly on the ballot. It also eliminates the requirement that People’s Veto questions be written so that an affirmative vote indicates support of the measure.

“LD 534 is a straightforward, common sense piece of legislation that will benefit every voter in the state of Maine,” Rep. Andrews said in testimony supporting the bill. “Empowering voters to make more informed decisions in the voting booth is something that we all should support.”

The bill faces additional votes in both chambers, though its passage under the hammer in the House on Tuesday is a positive signal. Ensuring that ballot questions can be easily understood by the entirety of the eligible voting population is important, especially if the expectation is that voters will make an informed decision on Election Day.  

In 2017, a Ballotpedia study found that it takes more than a college degree to comprehend the average title and summary of a ballot question in Maine. To conduct their analysis, Ballotpedia used the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL) formula to determine readability and difficulty, finding that it takes 25 years of formal education to understand the average ballot question in Maine.

Putting initiatives with complicated language on the ballot is unacceptable, especially considering just 30 percent of adults over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher in Maine. If this measurement of readability is an accurate indicator, the average Mainer may have difficulty comprehending ballot measures and therefore cannot make an informed decision on how they should vote.

Readability may have played a factor at the ballot box in 2018 when Maine voters were asked to consider a People’s Veto question regarding ranked-choice voting that, even for well-educated Mainers, may have been difficult to follow. The question appearing before Maine voters read: “Do you want to reject the parts of a new law that would delay the use of ranked-choice voting in the election of candidates for any state or federal office until 2022, and then retain the method only if the constitution is amended by December 1, 2021, to allow ranked-choice voting for candidates in state elections?”

Surely this question could have been posed in a clearer and more concise manner. Under LD 534, not only would this specific ballot language be improved, but the state would be required to inform voters of the effect of a “yes” or “no” vote, clearing up any confusion among voters about what their vote means.

Many other state government documents are required to be written at a sixth-grade reading level, which likely inspired the language of the original version of LD 534. For example, notices regarding child support and documents related to municipal property tax deferral programs for seniors must be easy to read by law.

Complex ballot question language leads to decreased participation in elections. A 2011 study featured in Political Research Quarterly found that the complexity of ballot question language correlates with higher rates of voter roll-off, which is when ballot questions are left blank on voters’ ballots. Ensuring ballot initiatives are easy to read and understand will encourage increased participation in state elections and allow more voters to make an informed decision while in the voting booth.

With the findings that ballot language is overly complex in Maine and can lead to limited participation in our elections, passing LD 534 this session is a no-brainer.

About Adam Crepeau

Adam Crepeau serves as a policy analyst at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at acrepeau@mainepolicy.org.

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