Colorado is tied with Florida in offering up the most initiatives — 13 — on the November ballot. But unlike Florida, a voter in Colorado needs a doctoral-level education, more than 22 years of school, to understand the average title question on Colorado’s ballot, according to a commonly used readability formula. Florida’s average title requires 12 years.
Colorado’s ballot titles have long ranked among the nation’s most difficult to understand. The complexity annoys and angers many voters here, but for populations with lower education levels — particularly communities of color — the impact is even worse. It’s disenfranchising, voting rights groups argue.
“This is especially concerning for the Latino community since we are already under-represented in government spaces and under-valued by politicians; we cannot have our electoral decisions threatened or diluted by unnecessary literacy barriers,” Karina Martinez, communications director for Mi Familia Vota, wrote to The Colorado Independent.
The reason for Colorado’s low readability score boils down to state laws that demand each title be condensed into a single sentence that meets several tests, often making the title complicated and unwieldy.
The title on this year’s ballot that requires the highest reading level is Proposition 112, better known as the oil-and-gas-drilling setback measure. The title reads:
Shall there be a change to the Colorado Revised Statutes concerning a statewide minimum distance requirement for new oil and gas development, and, in connection therewith, changing existing distance requirements to require that any new oil and gas development be located at least 2,500 feet from any structure intended for human occupancy and any other area designated by the measure, the state, or a local government and authorizing the state or a local government to increase the minimum distance requirement?
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level formula suggests 37 years of schooling are needed to understand that sentence. But the point of the formula isn’t the grade level — it’s the difficulty. So, why such a high score? In the case of Prop. 112, that one sentence is about 80 words. And, according to the formula, used by the U.S. military and many educators, the shorter the sentences, the fewer the syllables per word, the lower the reading level required to understand a ballot title.
The initiative title requiring the lowest reading level on the November ballot is Amendment W, involving judge-retention ballot language. Someone with 15 years of school should be able to understand that title, according to the formula. Amendment W reads:
Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado Constitution concerning a change in the format of the election ballot for judicial retention elections?
The chart below shows how Colorado’s measures stack up against one another in reading difficulty.
Amendment W’s 23-word title is atypically short for Colorado. It also has no semicolons — punctuation many title writers use to pack as many words as possible into a sentence, making reading comprehension more difficult. (In the chart above, we replaced semicolons with periods in the titles. Otherwise, the readability score of amendments such as Y and Z would have topped 90 years.)
Between 1997 and 2007, Colorado was second only to New Mexico in difficulty of initiative titles, according to a study by political scientists Shauna Reilly and Sean Richey. The study, published in 2009, found that Colorado’s ballot titles required an average of more than 25 years of schooling on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale. The average for all states was 17 years.
“Readability does connect to education so if there are segments of the population that are less educated than others they will find it more difficult to participate in these elections,” Reilly wrote in an email to The Colorado Independent.
The following charts show the education attainment levels of various groups in Colorado.
According to the study, which examined the readability of 1,211 state-level ballot questions, voters often skipped initiatives they didn’t understand, known as voter roll-off. Reilly and Richey write in the conclusion:
Particularly of interest is the disparate impacts that these poorly worded questions could have on disadvantaged groups.
The crafting of a title
How the titles are written depends whether the measure was initiated by citizens or lawmakers. The average reading level required is higher for citizen-referred initiatives — 25 — than those from the legislature — 20.
In both cases, though, titles have to be one sentence.
And that single sentence has to work hard. The Colorado Constitution Article V, Section 1 states that if a subject in a measure isn’t clearly expressed in the title, that portion of the measure “shall be void.”
That is the primary reason titles are written in complex sentences with multiple clauses.
Titles also must be written in the form of a question and contain all the major features of a measure, and they can’t be misleading.
For a legislatively referred measure, the Colorado Office of Legislative and Legal Services drafts a title at the request of the sponsoring lawmakers. It then passes through the legislature, where it can be amended. Ultimately, the measure sponsors have the final say over the title wording.
The legislature’s intent is not to confuse voters, said Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver, adding she worked for several years trying to figure out how to simplify ballot language. The title requirements kept posing a problem.
“The responsibility of the writers of these is to make certain that they are summarizing as many details of what the proposal would do as they can,” Court said. “And when it’s a 20-page proposal, that’s pretty complicated.”
Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, said the titles don’t always accurately convey the measure’s outcome. An example he gave was 2016’s Amendment T, “Removal of Exception to Slavery Prohibition for Criminals,” which Melton sponsored. The amendment’s title focused on removing specific language from the Colorado Constitution and was written with a double-negative that was confusing to voters, Melton said. The poor wording torpedoed the measure, which was expected to pass easily. Peter Hessler in The New Yorker remembers the confusion of the amendment:
On a ballot full of odd and confusing measures, I couldn’t untangle the language of Amendment T: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?” Does yes mean yes, or does yes mean no? The election of 2016 disturbs me in many ways, and one of them is that I honestly cannot remember whether I voted for or against slavery.
Amendment T was rewritten into Amendment A for 2018’s ballot. Melton said he and its other sponsors instead focused on the outcome of the measure, writing a title question that “prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude in all circumstances.”
Citizen-initiated measures go through a few more hurdles, including a hearing before the state’s Title Setting Board, which is made up of representatives from the offices of the secretary of state, the attorney general, and legislative services. Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert chairs the board.
The board makes sure the language of the question meets legal and constitutional requirements, including that it address a single subject, that it’s clearly stated, that it isn’t misleading, that all the major features of the proposal are incorporated, and that it doesn’t include any catch-phrases that campaigns sometimes use to influence the vote.
After the title is set by the board, opponents or supporters of the measure can apply for a rehearing if they aren’t satisfied with the title. The board doesn’t often grant rehearings — Proposition 112 is the only measure on the ballot this year that went through one. Staiert said at these rehearings the tone can become more hostile. One of the more interesting examples, she said, was Proposition 106, also known as access to medical aid in dying. Arguments over the successful 2016 ballot measure arose over the definitions of “suicide” and “assisted suicide.”
“It ends up being a lot of fight over every word and every comma and the description of everything,” Staiert said.
The title language has been difficult for more than 47 years, according to Gerry Cummins, vice president in charge of voter services for League of Women Voters.
“We’d like to see everything written more simply for the average person to understand what they are voting on,” Cummins said. “I think in its place they tend to rely on TV ads and yard signs.”
Staiert said when the title board has discussions about incorporating more “user-friendly” language, but when opposing sides can’t agree, the board falls back on the language in the body of the initiative.
The title board hopes voters aren’t relying only on the text of the title, she said, and will do outside research on each measure. Legislation that would require a 12th-grade reading level for all title question is possible, according to Staiert, but not under Colorado’s current law.