Tuesday, 1 November 2016

How (not) to write an election question...

They say it's not about having all the answers – it's about asking the right questions. This is essential when you decide the question at an election.

Sure, the question has to be - politically neutral. It cannot favour one outcome more than the other.  
Ultimately, when it comes to a ballot, the question must be plain and understandable for citizens.

Let’s have a look now at a couple of referendum questions.

“Shall that portion of 2013 Wisconsin Act 14 which limits the compensation of members of the board of supervisors of Milwaukee County other than the chairperson of the board and chairperson of the finance committee to receipt of an annual salary of not more than the annual per capita income of this county, which in 2012 was $24,051, and which limits the compensation of the chairperson of the board to not more than 150 percent of that amount and the chairperson of the finance committee to not more than 125 percent of that amount, subject to limitations and adjustments specified by law; and which prohibits supervisors from receiving any compensation or benefits not specifically authorized or required by law become effective in this county on April 18, 2016?” 

In Ethics, you have something called the “smell test”. If something smells fishy, then something is morally wrong.   

Here you could apply the “breath test”. Can you read the question in one breath?  Yoga instructors and swimmers aside, I would be struggling to read this in 3 whole breaths!

Yes, it is a real-life example. It is one sentence which has 129 words.  Separated only by a single semi-colon.

I’d be interested to know the legal arguments why the question was like this.  We don’t know about local politics issues. But as someone from outside, I would find it difficult to justify this as plain and understandable.

That said, the question does come later with an explanation:


A Yes vote will limit salaries and benefits for the Milwaukee County board of 
supervisors beginning in April 2016. A supervisor’s salary and authorized benefits will be capped at the annual per capita income of the county, which was $24,051 in 2012.
Compensation will be limited to 50 percent more than the supervisor’s amount for the Board chairperson and 25 percent more for the finance committee chairperson.
A No vote means the limits on salaries and benefits will not take effect. “

The Milwaukee County board could have saved time by first explaining the issue. Then ask the citizens whether they want the change.  I would re-write this as:


The Milwaukee County Board is asking its citizens to vote on the supervisory board’s salaries and benefits.  It is proposed that :
- a supervisor’s salary and authorized benefits are capped at $24,051.  That was the average income per person in the county in 2012.
- the compensation of the Finance Committee chairperson will be at most 25% higher than a supervisor’s salary.
- the Chairperson’s compensation will be at most 50% higher than a supervisor’s salary.

If voters approve, these changes to salaries and compensation will take effect from 1 April 2016.
Should the proposed changes to compensation and benefits take place?”

Of course, you’d need to test this with local citizens to see if they understand the question.  

The question was simply:

"Should Scotland be an independent country?"

At least here, you can say that the question is short, clear and understandable for the Scottish voters. Indeed, whether this is politically neutral is another point. You could say that voting “no” leads to negative campaigning.

And of course, we have just had most recently the EU referendum:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

Again, the question is short, clear and understandable.  Find out more here from the Electoral Commission on how they came up with their question.


I must emphasise that not all of the Milwaukee County’s referendum questions are like this.  I am only looking at an isolated case to prove a point.:

Referendum questions must be plain and understandable for citizens.

Do you have any referendum questions which are completely unreadable?  Write in the comments and we’ll try and figure out what’s going on!

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