Why Ballot Language Matters

by Martín Diego Garcia (He/Him)

ballot language

Lean Why Ballot Language Matters

Ballot language for ballot initiatives matters more than anything else and can make or break your initiative from the beginning. It has long been said that ballot measure language can be the difference between winning and losing. Here are some basics on ballot measure wording and how it can make or break your measure:

Impose a word limit: A voter’s attention span to comprehend your ballot language is not infinite, so be clear and be brief. The shorter and more concisely you can craft your ballot language that hit the toplines and clearly explain what the voter needs to know the better. Keep it short, like under 700 total, short. The longer the wording in your ballot language, the more it will seem like you are trying to hide taxes, fees or unintended consequences. This will lead to confusion for the voter and likely lead them to oppose your ballot measure. 

Define your question and its response: Voters need to understand what they are voting for and against, so be sure you are clearly laying out the questions in your ballot language AND defining what a “yes” and “no” vote mean. When voters are confused they may cast the wrong vote or skip the question all together. 

No is Easier: It’s easier to get people to vote against something than for something. Similarly, tearing down an idea is easier than engaging in positive dialogue for an issue. Be cognizant of this, as your opponents will capitalize on ballot language to get folks to vote no. Bottom line: if your ballot language is unclear or obscure, it makes the measure harder to pass.

When a Yes Means a No: Depending on how a question is put on the ballot, a measure can become confusing when a no vote is really means a yes vote, or the reverse. In these situations, voters find it difficult to understand their decision, which, as mentioned above, makes it tougher to pass. For example, voting NO on this measure will keep the current “insert issue” in place. Technically, you’re asking the voter to vote yes to keep the issue as is, but to do this they must vote no. Confusing, right? Sometimes this is unavoidable so work to make the ballot language as simple and clear as possible. 

Unintended Consequences: One of the easiest ways to erode support for a ballot measure is to show that it will create a result that people would never want. Trying to counter these unintended consequences in advance (whether by preparing for the argument or trying to remove the objection from the ballot language) is an important preparatory step.

Taxes and Fees: Simply using the word tax in your ballot language makes a measure harder to pass. We have seen several examples of ballot measures losing when they are forced to use language that mentions taxes or fees.

What To Do When You Are Unsure of Your Language: Test your exact ballot language. Whether it’s with a small group of people around a kitchen table, or through polling or focus groups, learn to understand how the language you use on you ballot measure will affect how people vote. Learn what is clear and what is confusing and adjust your ballot language accordingly to give you the best chances of success. 

Need help with your ballot language? Drop us a note!