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Putting Plain Language on the Ballot

We’ve got a few Anglophile nerds here in the office, and we were a bit obsessed with the referendum on Scottish independence last week. It raised serious issues about cultural identity, the global economy, and the custody of some of the United Kingdom’s shared national treasures.

Whatever you think about the outcome — by a margin of more than 10 points, Scottish citizens decided to stay part of the U.K. — the vote was an impressive display of real democracy. In some districts, turnout was over 90%.

But as Emily Badger in the Washington Post points out, there was another victor in the referendum: plain language. Just look at the ballot:

Image of the Scottish independence ballot: Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes or no

That’s it! Could the question be any clearer? No “herebys” or “Article XVs” or 15 line sentences. Just a 6-word question.

It turns out that the Scottish Electoral Commission put real effort into making the ballot clear, consulting with plain language experts and focus-testing the wording.

If only ballot initiatives in the U.S. were so simple. For a dismal contrast, Badger points to the language in Colorado’s 2012 ballot measure about legalizing marijuana:

Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning marijuana, and, in connection therewith, providing for the regulation of marijuana; permitting a person twenty-one years of age or older to consume or possess limited amounts of marijuana; providing for the licensing of cultivation facilities, product manufacturing facilities, testing facilities, and retail stores; permitting local governments to regulate or prohibit such facilities; requiring the general assembly to enact an excise tax to be levied upon wholesale sales of marijuana; requiring that the first $40 million in revenue raised annually by such tax be credited to the public school capital construction assistance fund; and requiring the general assembly to enact legislation governing the cultivation, processing, and sale of industrial hemp?

It makes you wonder how many ballot initiatives pass, or don’t pass, because people just don’t understand the question.

But for now, it’s a time to celebrate. The people of Scotland were given a straightforward, clear question. And they answered, just as clearly.

Let’s hope that people crafting ballot initiatives in the U.S. take notice.


Image source: The Electoral Commission. The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum Voting Guide

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