The four questions that will be on the upcoming May primary ballot here in Pennsylvania are among the hardest to read in the nation, according to an analysis by Ballotpedia.org that uses some of the most trusted readability indexes available.
The wording used for the “title language,” which is the question voters will first encounter on the ballot, is particularly complicated — requiring a reading comprehension level that a PhD would have. The question “summaries,” which give more detail on the issues addressed by the questions, get slightly easier to comprehend, but are still written at a “school level” readability requiring somewhere between 15 and 19 years of formal education to understand.
The analysis by Ballotpedia comes as the wording for two of the four questions has received consistent criticism. Republicans have accused Gov. Wolf and his department of state of purposefully trying to muddy the waters, a few Pennsylvania newspapers have editorialized about a lack of fairness in the wording, and other news reports have attempted to translate the complicated phrasing for voters.
The two ballot questions that have been of particular concern would limit a governor’s powers regarding emergency declarations.Those who have tracked ballot language over the years have often argued that when the language gets too complex — such as when it’s at or above a college level reading comprehension — the result is a kind of disenfranchisement. People with a lower reading comprehension might not vote the way they intended or might not vote altogether because of confusing wording.
The most contentious of the four questions is “Question 1” which, if approved, would give the General Assembly the power to terminate a governor’s emergency declaration by passing a resolution with a simple majority.
Question 1 reads:
Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?
“That [ballot question] has a reading grade of 37, which means that it’s really complicated,” said Dr. Shauna Reilly, a professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University.
Reilly wrote her thesis on the ease or complexity of ballot language. “A 12th grade reading level is scored a 12. So, with a 37, we’re talking more than a college degree to understand the question.”
The scores are calculated with the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and Flesch Reading Ease formulas. Those indexes are so widely adopted that word processors use them to recommend shorter sentences, and agencies like the U.S. Department of Defense use them when crafting publications.
The title wording of the second and third questions on this year’s ballot are somewhat easier to understand, with a grade level of 18 and 19 respectively. But most experts say states should aim for grade level scores between eight to 13 to realistically reduce the chances for confusion for all voters.
The fourth question goes back up to a grade level of 31.
Readability scores for the slew of ballot questions in 2020 from around the nation show very few in the 30’s or above. Some states, like Washington, managed to keep the reading grade remarkably low, in a range of grade levels 7-16.
When Reilly wrote her thesis in 2009 with Sean Richey, the pair analyzed years of ballot questions, and Pennsylvania ranked in the bottom 20 percent of the nation for readability.
“In our study there were six measures that were included from Pennsylvania, and they had an average grade level of 24, which means you would need a PhD to understand the question, generally speaking,” Reilly said. “That’s not to say that someone who doesn’t have a PhD can’t read at that level, it’s just when we expect that many years of education to be able to read and comprehend it.”
Who writes the questions varies from state to state.
For example, in Oklahoma, which Reilly and Richey’s research indicates has the best readability, initiative’s proponents write the language. In South Dakota, also a leader in readability, the job can fall to the state attorney general or to the state legislature, depending on the circumstances.
In Pennsylvania, elected Republicans have been blunt in their accusations against the governor.
“The governor is so desperate to cling on to power that they crafted this language on the May ballot to mischaracterize the amendment,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, at a press conference in February when the language was released.
“The ballot questions fairly, accurately and clearly apprise the voter of the issue to be voted on,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, the governor’s spokeswoman, in response. “The proposed amendment removes the existing check and balance – already contained in the PA Constitution – of presenting concurrent resolutions to the governor for approval or disapproval.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at tshepherd at broadandliberty.com, or use his encrypted email at shepherdreports at protonmail.com.