A nationwide study on the complexity of the wording of ballot questions found that it takes a post-graduate education just to comprehend the title of the average referendum in Maine.

Or to put it another way, the study found that it would take 25 years of education to figure out the average ballot question in the Pine Tree State. That’s more years than most Ph.D.s log before they head out into the world.

The latest census data found that only 1 percent of Mainers hold a doctorate. All told, about one in four adult Mainers has a four-year college degree or a more advanced degree.

One of this year’s ballot questions — for a technology bond in June — was so complicated the study determined it would take someone with 42 years of education to comprehend it well.

There isn’t really anyone with 42 years of formal education, though, so it essentially means that darn near nobody in Maine readily could have made sense of it.

Blame the Legislature for that one. It referred the measure for placement on the ballot and set the wording.


The Ballotpedia study released this month found that the technology bond question Mainers approved was actually the most difficult ballot question voters faced anywhere in America in 2017.

Put aside that referendum and the issues put before Maine voters were easier to understand.

The four ballot questions on the November ballot were suitable for people with between 16 and 27 years of formal education, or somewhere between a college junior and a freshly minted doctor.

“They make these things really long with no sentence breaks,” said Josh Altic, ballot measures project director for Ballotpedia, which summarizes and explains every referendum across the country.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said Thursday he can “certainly see the argument” that Maine’s ballot questions are too complex.

But, he said, it’s hard to make them simpler when dealing with a legal requirement that questions have to be a single sentence and that a “yes” vote means someone favors the proposition, something that’s especially tricky when a people’s veto is on the ballot.


Dunlap, who crafts the wording that appears on the ballot for citizen initiatives, said it’s a challenge to squeeze an intricate proposal into one sentence that captures enough of its details to let a voter understand what’s at stake.

Altic said Thursday that Ballotpedia draws an audience because “everyone has a hard time wrapping their minds around these ballot measures.”

For some, the convoluted wording of some questions may lend support to the notion that voters don’t always understand what they’re voting on, a position that Gov. Paul LePage has frequently declared to justify his opposition to enacting approved measures.

But Dunlap said that’s off the mark.

“Voters are smart and they know what they want and they know what they’re voting on,” Dunlap said.

“They think about this stuff. They don’t just walk in there and vote yes, yes, yes,” he said.


Ballotpedia checked all of the ballot issues in the country against two commonly used measures to determine how easy or hard it is to read a particular passage. The formulas used to determine the results look at the number of sentences, words and syllables in a text. It doesn’t try to determine the difficulty of the issue itself or the ideas expressed in the text.

Nationally, the average score for a ballot question was 20 or 21, depending on the formula used, both indicating they were written at such a high level that “a graduate school-level education was required to read and comprehend” them.

Altic said results that show it requires 42 years of education are obviously impossible. He said the numbers ought to tail off at some point that remains tethered to reality.

Altic said the study, which he plans to expand in years to come, found that ballot questions written by legislatures “end up being much more complicated” than ones written by attorneys general, secretaries of state or ballot commissions.

Some states, he said, have rules in place that guarantee that items on the ballot are comprehensible to people who are not highly educated.

For instance, two states studied in 2011 by political scientists Shauna Reilly and Sean Richey that had a number of ballot issues in the decade they looked at were able to keep the reading level required suitable for high school graduates. Oklahoma managed to achieve an average ninth-grade reading level while South Dakota also kept it simple enough that a college education wasn’t necessary.


Their study found Maine typically had wording more suitable for someone with a master’s degree, which fewer than one in 10 Mainers possesses.

Reilly and Richey found that voters were less inclined to vote on ballot questions that were especially tough to read. Easier ones get more votes, they determined.

Both Dunlap and Altic said the knottiest ballot questions are those that occur during a people’s veto, a process like the effort underway to restore the ranked-choice voting approved in 2016 by voters but gutted by lawmakers this year.

They often wind up with a double negative proposition, Altic said, that can leave voters puzzled as they try to determine if they favor overturning the Legislature’s rejection of a law.

Still, whatever the downsides, Dunlap said he’s come to embrace fully the initiative system.

Though Dunlap said he wishes organizers would keep their propositions clearer and more simple, he said they’re performing a valuable service that the public appreciates.


Voters, he said, “take their jobs as a citizen legislator seriously,” as the results of many ballot questions over the years have shown.

“It’s a majestic process and we’re lucky to have it,” Dunlap said.


One study says this was the nation’s most complicated ballot question in 2017

Maine Question 1 in June 2017

Do you favor a $50,000,000 bond issue to provide $45,000,000 in funds for investment in research, development and commercialization in the State to be used for infrastructure, equipment and technology upgrades that enable organizations to gain and hold market share, to increase revenues and to expand employment or preserve jobs for Maine people, to be awarded through a competitive process to Maine-based public and private entities, leveraging other funds in a one-to-one ratio and $5,000,000 in funds to create jobs and economic growth by lending to or investing in small businesses with the potential for significant growth and strong job creation?

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.