Do Confusing Ballots Put Democracy at Risk?

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

With election debate raging at its height just prior to November 4, election day, there are a lot of predictions flying around as to who will take the Senate majority. It’s a hotly debated topic, with arguments ranging from which states will swing in favor of red or blue unexpectedly, to whether or not the Senate majority will even affect law production whichever way it goes. But if there’s anything more charged and controversial than the Senate split, it’s the gun control debate, especially charged given the recent shooting at a Washington high school, in which a young girl was killed, four other students were injured, and the shooter eventually turned the gun on himself.

The most pressing upcoming gun control policy item — background check requirements for purchase of a firearm — will be on the ballot this November. While it may not be a measure that would have prevented the shooting in Washington, which is thought to have been done with a gun registered to a family member, we will still likely see the effects of this event in the polls, if not in the election itself.

However, an interesting and concerning thing appeared to have been happening with the ballot for background checks, as FiveThirtyEight recently pointed out — and it serves as a good example for a major issue in American politics. Though voter sentiment on the personal history checks was very clear cut in the polls — but with the margin of error it could actually still end up being a close call — in favor of background checks, the ballot itself nearly caused some problems. According to FiveThirtyEight, the two polling questions, “Do you want expanded background checks for gun purchases?” and “Do you not want expanded background checks for gun purchases?” were not answered according to true sentiment, but instead confused readers. A poll showed that people supported Initiative 591 and not Initiative 594, meaning more people were more in favor of mandatory background checks upon buying a firearm than were in favor of banning background checks barring any federal demands.

When asked the questions as phrased above, a polling group — Elway Research — found both had majority support, not at all representational of true opinion based on follow-up polling. Of course, there are certainly those who are against background checks; it’s the NRA’s stance currently, though recently the NRA-ILA argued that “If the background check was free, fast, and did not produce any gun or gun owner registration lists, it would likely face less opposition from gun rights advocates.” But ultimately, gun-rights advocates may have lost their edge as confusion has been dealt with and fixed over the course of the election season. After campaigning, public outreach, and education, the polls show this problem seems to have been corrected and the majority of support is appropriately placed on the correct measure in line with sentiment — voters will know how to answer based on their true opinion when faced with even the rather confusing phrasing of the ballot come November.

What’s interesting about this example beyond the obvious is that it’s hardly the first time that bad ballot questions have nearly led voters astray. True, voting isn’t quite as bad as the satirical Sweetums versus Leslie Knope example from NBC’s Park’s and Recreation, but not as far off as one might hope either.

For example in a November 2011 vote in Massachusetts regarding gambling laws, a yes vote prohibited certain practices, and a no vote, left the law as it was previously. So to vote against casinos one would vote “yes.” A very similar confusion resulted from California’s Proposition 40, a redistricting referendum in 2012. The ballot was set up so that if you wanted to vote in the affirmative toward change, you had to vote “no.”

There’s a real danger here that voters attempting to preserve the status quo will unintentionally trigger an entirely new line-drawing process,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at University of Southern California, of the ballot set up, according to ProPublica. 

This year in Tennessee, a number of key local amendments dealing with abortion, veterans, the appointment of judges, and income taxes have been subject of criticism for being described in language that is difficult for voters to fully understand. It’s argued that this is “standard,” seen “every time we have something on the ballot,” the Republican Party Chairman Tony Sanders told Times Free Press. “They are made to be confusing because you are dealing with constitutional language which can be hard to understand itself,” he said.

Ultimately what this tells us is three-fold. Firstly, there is clearly something left to be desired in the careful and objective writing of a neutral ballot with clear and concise options. Voting, a key cog in the clockwork of democracy is made useless if voters are unable to understand, or unknowingly misunderstand, ballot options and vote against their own instincts. The second is that Americans aren’t always as educated on local and national issues as they should be — something made abundantly clear when the arrested former-state-Senator Leland Yee of California (connected with Chinese mafia and gun running) received over 300,000 votes for California’s Secretary of State despite having dropped out of the race.

And finally, while there’s proof voters aren’t always the most responsible, this just serves as a reminder that it’s important to educate yourself on the issues before going into that booth this fall — just something to keep in mind with elections looming.

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Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS