Don’t Let Plain Language Get the Best of You

This article does not attempt to expose biases, unfairness, or deceptions associated with language in political campaigns, polls, or ballots. Unfairness is both legal and customary in campaign and ballot language. This article does examine an interesting use of plain language.

The Fall 2012 Elections in Georgia put many voters in conflict with their own opinions. In the Metro Atlanta counties, we were trying to wrap our heads around the Traffic Referendum, but there was also a charter school amendment up for vote. Previously, the Georgia Supreme Court decided that the state commission responsible for the approval of new charter schools was unconstitutional because the commission overrode local school boards and governments. Voters were to decide whether or not the state should be allowed to approve new charter charter schools. The language of the ballot and the polls that preceded the ballot was so plain in this case that the ballot question failed to communicate the implication of a “yes” or “no” vote.

The ballot question:

“Shall the constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”

YES! Of course! But what does that mean?

To vote yes meant that voters, whether or not they knew it, would disagree with the Georgia Supreme Court ruling and permit the state commission in question to continue approving new charter schools despite local disapproval. To vote “no,” voters would agree with the court decision and give their local school boards more voice in the approval process of new charter schools. Voting “no” did not, however, mean an end to charter schools. The language of the ballot question made it seem that way, so that anyone who would call themselves proponents of education or progressive education laws would likely vote “yes.” In this scenario, the plainness of the language served more as a “primer” for a vote rather than an effort to clarify the meaning of a legislative proposal to the general public.

To quote Wayne Washington of The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Opponents say the wording falsely implies that local boards and the state can’t already approve charter applications. Roberts said supporters wanted to make sure voters knew the commission would not diminish local boards’ authority.”

If we reword the ballot question, the language can create an entirely different effect on the reader:

“Shall the constitution of Georgia be amended so as to decrease funding for local public schools and allocate more for new charter schools?”

This phrasing is just as plain and it concerns the same legislation, but it suggests for voters to vote “no” and disagree with the legislation. This phrasing and the original are quite biased and pointed, but they share the same dangerous quality—plainness.

After seeing how the plain language in this ballot question worked, we can conclude that it served not to clarify, but to obscure something from the readers/users of the ballot. Whether you voted “yes” or “no” for this amendment, you should be able to recognize how this use of plain language deviated from our understanding of plain language as something that should help people of different literacy levels understand government policy.

Even though the federal law concerning plain language requires that “[our regulatory system] must ensure that regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand,” we are still subject to deviations in language where this law holds no sway, such as ballot questions in state elections.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Let Plain Language Get the Best of You”

  1. I feel your article points out an important issue with plain language in that by simplifying some things we may lose the implication. Plain language is important for fostering a level of understanding throughout a wide audience but breaking things down too far can create a loss of meaning. You make an excellent argument for the way in which everything must be used in moderation, including plain language, and how there must be a middle ground between confusing and misleading.

    I know you made a point to state that you are here only to discuss the use of plain language and not argue political issues, but I think your example does bring up an essential critique of language use in politics and government. Because of the simple nature of plain language, it is easy to over-simplify and create a subliminal bias. However, I think it is also important to consider the political implications of using complex language. Because citizens in lower-income areas tend to have a lower-quality education, using specialized language in politics can intentionally be used to deter and confuse them. Similarly, since older Americans tend to have a lower literacy level due to poor education growing up, specialized language can be used in the same tactfully discriminatory way. These are the exact reasons we have legislature in place to ensure the use of plain language where it is needed and these arguments should be made for the expansion of plain language usage on documents such as ballots.

  2. I like the scenario you have presented here because it is a bit of a puzzle to sort out. Plain language has it’s uses and its limitations as you and others pointed out. I think part of what makes plain language such a versatile tool is the very fact of it’s “straight forward-ness” makes it easy to use, in theory, no matter what the situation. What interests me the most here is that having the ballot question reworded to be more complex or more full of law jargon would not actually solve or clarify the problem without actually putting large reams of background information to go along with the question. I actually think that here the main problem is that the language is too plain because its’ answer either way depends on how much information is known from the outside sources when people come in to vote.

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