THE BLOG
08/12/2014 01:38 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2014

Ballot-Measure Wording Often Unclear, Incomplete

Do you support a statewide 5 percent tax on gasoline?

Yes or no?

What if the issue was phrased a little differently?

Do you approve of a new 5 percent tax on gasoline to fund a low-income housing assistance program?

In both instances, the way the question is worded directly affects the readers' perception of the issue at hand. In the first instance, the question introduces a cost without a benefit. In the second instance, the wording shows how added spending will be used for something that would be perceived by many readers as "good."

The framing matters.

Voters face ballot questions like the examples above all the time. In some instances, meanings and implications are perfectly clear. But when a question or its context is unclear, voters may check a box that reflects the opposite of their true goal -- or they simply may not register an opinion at all.

Whitney Quesenbery, a user experience and plain language expert who heads up the Center for Civic Design, said this is a big problem for many voters.

"There are many instances where, to many people, it appears that no means yes and yes means no," Quesenbery said. "That outrages people, and it makes them afraid to vote because they don't want to check the wrong box."

Ballot-question authors also must strive for neutrality -- and many struggle. California's Proposition 8 is an example of ballot language that sparked serious debate and even legal challenges.

The original wording for Prop 8 read: "Amends the California Constitution to provide that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

Eventually, the ballot measure was rewritten as follows:

Proposition 8 -- "Eliminates right of same-sex couples to marry."

See the difference?

But issues with neutrality in wording choices are just one part of the battle when it comes to ballot measures. Missing or incomplete information is another issue that can taint voter decision-making.

In November, Illinois voters will be asked to vote yes or no on the following referendum:

"Should the Illinois Constitution be amended to require that each school district receive additional revenue, based on their number of students, from an additional 3% tax on income greater than one million dollars?"

Votes are nonbinding, and any results from this referendum will strictly be used to show voters' so-called "pulse" on the issue.

But what are voters being asked to consider, exactly?

The lawmaker who created this question took a tactical approach in tying an unpopular tax-increase proposal to funding for education.

The tax increase -- which is referred to here as a 3 percent tax on "income greater than one million dollars" -- is made to sound like a proverbial "tax on the rich." Politicians in Illinois already tried to move legislation to this effect through the Statehouse earlier in 2014, to no avail. That's because the tax didn't just apply to the wealthiest Illinoisans -- it also would have hit small businesses, which are responsible for 63 percent of net new jobs in the last 20 years in the U.S.

But the authors of this ballot question framed the wording in a way that makes a "yes" vote seem to make a lot of sense. By leading with something "good" -- more money for kids and education -- the follow up with something many would consider "painful" -- higher taxes on someone else - doesn't seem so bad.

Voters unfamiliar with this issue likely will not realize the nuances behind the referendum and its implications for business owners and jobs across the state.

"The framing of a question matters. In surveys, both the order of the questions and how they are asked makes a difference," Quesenbery said. "It's just as true on ballots. If the ballot question is phrased to emphasize costs, people might react differently than if it focused on the benefits. Flip the order around, and you might get a totally different result."

Politicians know this, and often use language to influence votes.

So while there's always a political goal behind referenda and ballot questions, voters across the country may not be so sure what it is. Unfortunately, that's often by design.