Which brings us back to the current ballot questions: Do the Republicans’ complaints about the ballot wording have any merit? Are these bad questions?
Survey researchers generally describe a bad question as one that produces answers resulting from how the question is written, rather than resulting from how people think or feel.
Survey researchers actually know a great deal about how people respond to questions and about the best ways to write them so that people can accurately answer them. The most basic rules of question construction are commonsensical: form a question that is easy to understand, uses everyday language, uses words with clear and specific meanings, and is as short as possible.
Unclear questions that use terms we don’t understand, that lack specific meaning, and that otherwise cause confusion will influence our answers. People cannot link the ideas in a question to the ideas they understand or consider important when the question is badly written.
Pennsylvania’s proposed ballot initiatives on disaster declarations fail to follow these simple rules. Phrases such as “unilaterally terminate” and “severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution” that appear in one of the ballot questions are not universally understood, inherently meaningful terms for most people. Loaded terminology that could influence responses are also present, including phrases like, “increase the power of the General Assembly” and “removing the existing check and balance.” As with the 2016 questions, these questions also lack important context about existing procedures.
Failing to write a good ballot question is about much more than writing good questions. It also drives cynicism and encourages apathy among voters. At best, citizens will ask, “What political reason did they have to ask such a bad question?” At worst, this failure gives citizens yet another reason to doubt the credibility and competence of our elected officials.
Ballot initiatives should be among the most direct exercises in democracy we have. But for this exercise to work, the ballot questions themselves should provide voters with the information they need to make an informed decision. The ballot initiative in November 2016 did not seem to meet that standard, and it is difficult to argue that the 2020 questions do either.