Intellectual Dishonesty with Saint Charles County Ballot Wording
Scott Koeneman, 11-16-2012
1,154 votes. That was the small amount of yes votes separating the November 6th, 2012 charter amendment from defeat (Korando, 2012). The charter amendment read as follows:
County Charter Question Law Enforcement
“Shall the St. Charles County Charter be amended by providing for the establishment of a county police department and transferring the duties for the patrol division, detective bureau, and other direct police duties and their support functions to a county police department and providing for the Sheriff’s Department to be in charge of court services and security including prisoner transport, service of process and bailiff and other court security duties?” YES / NO
Does it say anywhere in this wording that the voter would lose the right to elect their own Sheriff? After all, the way this charter question was worded arguably makes it sound as if simple job duties are being transferred to a new county police department. The critical issue of whether the voter retains the ability to elect a sheriff is not coded into the ballot question for consideration by the voter.
The reality of the matter is that voters will still elect a sheriff, however the sheriff’s job duties have now changed with the passing of this ballot measure. A new police chief appointed by the county council will be responsible for “the patrol division, the detective bureau, and other direct police duties…”. Essentially, standard policing and patrolling duties will now fall under the jurisdiction of someone who is unelected. Saint Charles County voters voted away their right to elect a sheriff. Instead, they voted to relieve the sheriff of most of his typical responsibilities and give them to an unelected police chief.
Under this new paradigm, the only jobs the elected sheriff has now are prisoner transport, court services, and process serving (Barker, 2012). Saint Charles County Missouri voters have given up their own rights to elect the highest-ranked uniformed officer in the area. What if the ballot wording had removed the legalese and was honestly worded? What if the ballot read as follows?:
County Charter Question re: Elected Sheriff vs. Appointed Police Chief
Shall the St. Charles County Charter be amended to remove the right of the people to elect a sheriff, in favor of the county council appointing a police chief?
Would the ballot measure still have passed if honestly worded? Ballot wording has been a problem in Missouri for decades. After all, more than 16,000 such issues are submitted to voters each year nationwide (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979). More than any one item on the ballot, the wording of the questions is most likely to lead voters in one direction or another (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979).
Back in 1976 during the Missouri Primary, the ballot contained Constitutional Amendment Number 7, which was a proposal that would have removed a constitutional ban against state aid for services to students in nonpublic schools (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979). That ballot measure read as follows:
“Authorizes enactment of laws providing (1) services for handicapped, (2) nonreligious textbooks, and (3) transportation for all public and nonpublic elementary and secondary school children (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979, p. 395).
At the time, proponents of the bill wanted equal treatment for children going to private schools as those going to public schools (Leuthold, 1979). However, the public school children were already receiving these services, so their inclusion in the ballot wording confused voters (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979). So a survey was conducted in which respondents were asked a simple question:
“As best you understand, will that amendment, if passed, allow an increase in aid to children in private schools only, public schools only, or both private and public schools (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979, p. 396).”
That survey was conducted in Boone County, Missouri. Back then the county had about 80,000 citizens, who mostly lived in Colombia (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979). The question was administered from trained student volunteer interviewers, who were assigned a random sample of precincts (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979). Those interviewers asked voters the question as they left the polls, and those voters only refused to answer about 30% of the time (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979).
975 interviews were conducted. The results indicated that voters are confused by the ballot wording. 55% of voters believed the amendment would result in increased aid for students in both private and public schools (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979). 6% said the aid was only aimed at children in public schools (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979). The remaining 40% of the voters understood that the aid was only to be directed at children in private schools (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979).
The Gafke & Leuthold (1979) study made the correlation that voters with less information about an issue are more likely to be confused by difficult ballot wording. Conversely, voters who were part of special interest groups or had a genuine interest in the ballot issue were less likely to be confused (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979). Also correlated in this study was the fact that voters with fewer years of education would likely end up confused at the ballot as well (Gafke & Leuthold, 1979).
For the November 6th County Charter Question Law Enforcement ballot wording, it is clear that the authors of the ballot issue were not going for a high degree of readability. In fact if the text of the ballot issue is highlighted, and copied into Microsoft Word’s readability statistics program – it comes back reading at a 12th grade level. However, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), a very significant number of adults have either not completed high school, or have earned a GED. This portion of adults only has either a basic or below-basic understanding of prose, which is defined as “the ordinary form of a spoken or written language, without metrical structure, as distinguished from poetry or verse” (NAAL, 2003; Prose | Define Prose at Dictionary.com, 2012).
Clearly the prose used in the County Charter Question for St. Charles is written at a level of comprehension unattainable to a significant number of voters, and is intellectually dishonest as to the effects of passing or denying the measure. This disenfranchisement is outrageous, and can lead voters to vote in ways they may not normally have were the ballots worded clearly. Perhaps it is time for an updated study similar to Gafke and Leuthold’s. More aptly stated, it is time to word ballots in a clear, common sense manner, free of legal-jargon and comprehensible to all. Maybe under that paradigm, voters will not unwittingly vote away their own civil-rights.
Barker, J. (2012). Sheriff Forms Committee to Help Plan County Police Department – St. Charles, MO Patch. Retrieved November 17, 2012, from http://stcharles.patch.com/articles/sheriff-f2ecf8a4?ncid=newsltuspatc00000001
Prose | Define Prose at Dictionary.com. (2012). Retrieved November 17, 2012, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/prose
Gafke R, Leuthold D. The effect on voters of misleading, confusing, and difficult ballot titles. Public Opinion Quarterly [serial online]. Fall79 1979;43(3):394. Available from: Business Source Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 16, 2012.
Korando, R. (2012). St. Charles County to create police department : Sj. STL Suburban Journals. Retrieved November 17, 2012, from http://www.stltoday.com/suburban-journals/stcharles/news/st-charles-county-to-create-police-department/article_673352e0-c8b2-5bd6-af9e-d60f75509d57.html
National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) – Demographics – Education. (2003). Retrieved November 17, 2012, from http://nces.ed.gov/naal/kf_dem_edu.asp