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.